As the UK officially invokes its exit from the EU signalling the start of a two-year countdown before Britain finally leaves in 2019, one of the major issues facing the fresh produce and agricultural industry is the need for seasonal workers – often from Eastern European countries – to plug labour shortages on fruit farms during busy harvesting periods. In a broader sense, EU nationals living and working in the UK have been valuable contributors to the fresh produce industry for decades in many different capacities. One man who helps looks after workers, temporary and permanent, is Richard Fletcher, ethical trade officer at Boston-based Freshtime UK Ltd. PBUK caught up with him recently at the Fresh Careers Fair in London.
When the news first broke that the UK was to leave the EU, there was an understandable amount of concern amongst Britain’s migrant population worried about what that might mean for their future.
Nine months on and concerns remain, as details relating to the free movement of people, specifically what happens to EU nationals living and working in the UK, have yet to emerge.
Part of Richard’s job is to work with the Freshtime workforce, including those from Eastern European countries, to make sure they are enjoying life living in the heart of Britain’s vegetable and salad production areas, Boston, and working at Freshtime.
“There were some initial concerns after the Referendum with people understandably concerned about their future. We reassured them immediately, that nothing changes as far as we are concerned. Our message is “you are a valuable colleague, you are welcome here, and we are here to support you” – that is what we want to convey,” he tells PBUK.
“This is an issue confronting much of the horticultural industry in the UK. None of us know what is going to happen and we are here to support the workers as best as we can.
Freshtime UK Ltd produces value-added, ready-to-eat vegetable and salad products with its operation in the heart of one of the UK’s most important vegetable and salad production areas.
“There are a lot of East European migrants living in the area and when they come here for the first time they need to be helped to get used to the way things are done. We try to make sure we do the best we can to help them.
“We are talking about issues like unscrupulous providers of labour, people who maybe are controlling other people for their own financial gain.There are often stories about people working all hours of the day and then only get paid £20 pounds a week, while somebody else pockets the rest.
“We are there to look for the signs of that happening and try to stop it, so we are educating the people we are working with so our workers have the right information and can pass this onto their friends to make sure they are not in this type of situation.
“Part of my role is to do the same things in the supply chain which is extremely wide; we get vegetables from everywhere, from five miles down the road to any part of the UK, to the other side of the world.”
Freshtime sources a variety of produce from broccoli grown in the local area to baby corn from India.
“It is that varied, and the array of products is huge; the different kinds of products, the different way they are grown, manufactured or prepared, the different countries they come from. These things have different challenges and there is a lot for us to look at.
“Something I have noticed is that generally speaking people and businesses genuinely want to do the right thing. Because this area is quite an emotive subject, people take it on board in a personal way as ethical standards can also reflect on how their business is perceived.”