‘There are no jobs’. How many times have you heard it? It’s a phrase repeated on practically every discussion programme on the economy, on every channel, every day.
Yet I’ve spent the past two days talking to UK fruit farmers, and many of them tell me they constantly advertise for seasonal UK labour. The response? Pitiful.
Take S&A Produce. In 2009 they advertised 2000 seasonal jobs for their strawberry picking season in Herefordshire, but got just 12 applications from British nationals. At the time, 8% of the county’s 16-24 year olds were claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. Three farmers from Kent regularly advertise early each year, but barely get any responses. “And even if we did,” one told me, “many British people who come down don’t last more than a couple of days.”
Recently the MP for Sheppey and Sittingbourne, Gordon Henderson, ran a Westminster Hall Debate to discuss this. Numerous members, from those in constituencies in the West Midlands, to Scotland and Northern Ireland, all lined up in broad consensus that the fruit farming industry was now ultra-dependent on immigrant labour.
With unemployment at 8.2% across the country, and youth unemployment at 21.9%, this should both surprise and worry us. Why is it that British people are unwilling or unable to take this work?
This was the context for a debate which I participated in this morning on BBC Radio Kent. At the Kent County Show today, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, will be lobbied by the National Farmers Union to develop a new initiative to replace the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). With plummeting interest in seasonal horticultural work in the UK, the UK Border Force have for years run the scheme, which has allowed farmers and growers in the UK to recruit low-skilled overseas workers to do short-term agricultural work on a quota basis. Farmers and growers can employ a fixed number of overseas workers through the scheme every year. The workers are given short-term work cards, with a maximum stay of 6 months.
Initially the scheme applied to students from outside of the European Union. But with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, and the desire to impose transitional controls on these countries, the scheme has been opened exclusively to nationals of these countries since 2008. In 2012 and 2013, as many as 21,250 migrants from these countries will come across to pick our fruit each year. But from 2014, when the people of the two countries will be granted completely free movement within the single market, the farmers are worried that the appeal of picking fruit will be diminished, and the migrants will seek other better paid jobs. They therefore want a new scheme which brings in workers from even further afield to guarantee their supply of labour.
The Government, for its part, is obviously not keen on this. It has huge political capital invested in bringing down immigration numbers, and has made great play on eliminating ‘unskilled immigration’ from outside of the EU, and so will be unwilling to make an exception for one industry. It’s difficult not to think the farmers are overstating their case. The wage the Romanian/Bulgarian workers could receive here for fruit-picking – a minimum wage set by the Agricultural Wage board –will still be three or four times higher than wages available back home, making it difficult to see why supply of labour should be a problem (particularly with Europe-wide unemployment so high). One suspects this is more about the convenience for the farmers.
Nevertheless, this mustn’t allow us to ignore the basic fact: these are at least 20,000 jobs (far more when you consider other migrants from within the EU) which British workers seem unwilling to undertake, despite the fact they offer minimum wages and accommodation - so aren’t undercutting potential low-skilled employees.
Welfare is undoubtedly an important factor here. The withdrawal of benefits leaves individuals facing significant marginal effective tax rates, reducing the incentive to take the work. This becomes even more of a problem when the system is geared towards people finding full-time work, making coming on and off of benefits more difficult, and a problem that the universal credit will hopefully nullify by increasing disregarded income from 2013.
Several Conservative MPs have therefore suggested welfare reform alone will encourage more Brits to take up work on our farms. But the tax and benefit system can’t be the only explanation. Most of the farmers claim that the Romanian and Bulgarian workers are more flexible, more hard-working and more productive. This is partly a consequence of the wage differential between the two countries, which is so large that economics graduates such as Ababi Mircea from Romania feel that they are better off utilising their talents productively in this line of work. "The money I make here in one week I make in Romania in one month," he recently told the BBC. Is it therefore any surprise that farmers would rather take on enthused high-skilled workers?
That we don’t seem to see the same drive and enthusiasm from indigenous people in fruit picking is evidence of a broader issue as countries get richer. Increasing wealth changes people’s aspirations, and there now appears to be a snobbishness against taking work as a fruit-picker, even from those with low skills and little in the way of employment prospects. This is not unique to the UK. On a recent trip to Malaysia, I was struck by the number of Bangladeshis working on palm oil plantations in jobs which even the middle-income Malaysians were seemingly unwilling to do. But for countries as rich as us, this even seems more acute. Whereas many relatively wealthy young people may previously have picked fruit in the summer, they now aspire to go trekking in Borneo or to, dare I say it, pick fruit in Australia.
It’s important to bear this in mind next time you see a debate in which someone claims there are no jobs. There are, but often we appear unwilling to take them. Welfare reform will help at the margins, but the eagerness and vigour with which the Romanian and Bulgarian migrants take to their task shows the hunger for betterment that perhaps we have lost (and used to have when hundreds of families spent their summer holidays doing it).
Two other key lessons seem apt here: the divide between low-skilled and high-skilled immigration is simplistic and misleading – in this instance, the arrival of pickers has aided the UK economy and in the future a cap on skilled migrants will be a crude way of maintaining support for control of the borders. Second, for the unemployed, fruit picking might seem a menial task, but it could be an important rung on the job ladder. The fact that graduates travel hundreds of miles to do it shows there’s nothing to be ashamed of.