Whether it’s Nick Ferrari proclaiming that ‘anybody can pick a raspberry off a bush’ or the Telegraph’s Helen Chandler suggesting novices could earn £30 an hour on the broccoli, wayward assumptions about the nature of farm work are growing rather tiresome, especially as suggestions of significant food shortages linger.
Inaccuracies in the media are hardly surprising, however, given that the government’s own ‘Pick For Britain’ campaign was based on panicked predictions and misinformed grandstanding. If you recall, this was the mid-pandemic effort to recruit a ‘land army’ of students and furloughed workers to plug the supposedly aching gaps in the nation’s rural workforce.
When Prince Charles, ITV and Waitrose all stepped in to throw their weight behind the government’s recruitment drive in the middle of May in 2020, they did so in the grip of premature fears that had gathered pace during the global standstill of April, fears that the predominantly Romanian and Bulgarian seasonal pickers would be unable to make their customary trip to the UK’s farmlands.
But Bulgaria had already opened up commercial flights to the UK on 1 May (Romania followed suit a week later), and most seasonal workers managed to make their passage just in time to save the majority of our spring harvests. So, of the 32,000 Brits that answered the call to ‘Pick For Britain’ and applied for farm operative roles, only 4,000 were interviewed, and fewer still offered a job.
Why not just use the keen, lockdown-struck Brits and protect ourselves (and the world) from international Covid transmissions? The truth is that untrained Brits are no viable replacement for practiced workers from the continent. The homegrown workers can’t pick the homegrown produce quick enough for our farms to turn a profit.
There’s more to it than just raw inexperience though. I spoke to some of the lucky (or unlucky) Brits who did manage to get a farm gig during lockdown to find out how they got on.
‘Right outside the hostel they put us up in there were open drains leaking human shite. Next to the picnic tables everyone was meant to eat dinner on,’ claims Dave*, who picked lettuce on a farm run by G’s Fresh, near the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire.
‘The hostel was like a prison. There was no hot water for up to five days at a time. The electricity was going every other day. We were paying an extra tenner a week, on top of our £65 rent, for wi-fi that didn’t work at any point,’ adds Gerry*, another disaffected worker who spoke to me.
Conditions picking asparagus weren’t much better, according to Keira*. She worked for Cobrey Farms, a company run by the Chinn family, based in south Herefordshire.
‘When we arrived they put us in very basic campervans. They were cold and dingy; you had to pay for your own gas to heat up the oven and the radiators. You also had to buy your own bedding. It wasn’t what I expected.’
If the accommodation that pickers are expected to put up with comes as no surprise, then the prevalence of drug abuse amongst the influx of fresh-faced Gen Z-ers may raise a collective eyebrow.
‘People were ordering drugs off the dark web,’ recalls Pete*, who worked with Keira in Herefordshire. ‘Blokes from London were coming up with ounces of weed and ketamine; obviously they had friends working on the farm who had told them about our situation, which was basically a load of kids getting fucked up every night. It was kind of lawless. Kids were gumming ket in the kitchen. People were smoking DMT.’
‘It was clearly too much for some of the Brits, who were in their late teens or early twenties. One kid took too much 2CB and had a bad trip. Got paranoid about people stealing his stuff. I don’t think he really recovered.’
Keira found the daily excesses particularly difficult. ‘While on the farm it was super hard not to partake, simply because everyone was doing ket every night and it almost felt like you’d be an outcast if you didn’t. This was super tricky for me as a person in recovery. It’s been over a year and I’m still not over my last relapse.’
Prior to setting off for his stint on the G’s Fresh farm, Gerry had been anticipating an opportunity to detox from his London-based habits. But a chance phone call before he left rendered that rather unlikely.
‘My mates [who were already there] rang me and said that all the British workers were absolute fiends and that I should bring loads of coke and ket up with me to sell, so I did. People were doing Class As every day. Some were smashing gear on shift.’
Gerry’s regular punters included a pair of teenage delinquents and a former businessman in his forties who’d fallen on hard times. ‘It got tragic after a while. Especially the two lads, ‘cos they were so young.’
It wasn’t long until relations with the authorities on the farm took a turn for the ugly. This was, ostensibly, due to the endemic drug abuse, but Dave suspects other factors were at play.
‘We [the British workers] weren’t allowed upstairs in the hostel, supposedly because of Covid restrictions. Anyway, someone had taken a load of photos of the dorms up there and was threatening to do an exposé, or so we heard. This got the management scared, and that’s when the drug testing started.’
Gerry recalls being stopped during the middle of a shift. ‘This bloke in pink chinos turns up and starts demanding we do drug tests. It felt like bullshit because they wanted to get rid of us. We were shit compared to the Eastern Europeans and now someone was apparently trying to grass the farm up to the BBC for its shoddy living conditions.’
Dave reckons there is no way the drug tests were legit. ‘I’d smoked a spliff and done several lines of coke the night before and my test came back negative. I was one of two British workers to receive a negative drug test result. Out of about 30. The rest all got positive results and were fired instantly.’
As far as following legal procedures where testing employees for drugs is concerned, the methods of G’s Fresh directly contravene various workers’ rights. Employers are required to use drug testing sparingly and at random, with clear consent from employees and without singling out particular people.
‘It felt like you had to do it,’ says Dave. ‘They only selected Brits, and they selected all the Brits.’
Gerry wasn’t bothered about being sacked from the farm and, despite passing the drugs test and keeping his job, Dave left with him a few weeks later. Like the majority of new British pickers, the pair were mainly there to escape the boredom of lockdown, as opposed to their migrant counterparts, whose purpose was overwhelmingly informed by hopes of sending money to families back home. For them, the stakes could not be higher, nor their exploitation easier.
‘It was known around the caravan park that a young girl had been raped,’ says Keira. ‘Charges hadn’t been brought forward, the assaulter kept his job and life went on. I assume this to be because the girl was scared to make a fuss and focused on sending money home to her family in Albania. We could only imagine how hard it must have been for her.’
‘We take great care to provide a happy, healthy and safe working environment for our staff [and] take responsibility for ensuring the welfare of all our employees,’ reads the Cobrey Farms website. Keira and Pete’s account suggest otherwise.
The experiences of Gemma*, another recruit at Cobrey Farms, are a shocking indictment of the working culture:
‘A lot of the line managers kept messaging me on Facebook, trying to get me to go to their caravans. I was sent several unsolicited dick pics. It was really overwhelming.’
Pete was also aware of sexual assaults being reported but barely any action taken. ‘Management just tried to prevent the perpetrators from mingling with the Brits, while the line managers continued to harass the girls themselves.’
G’s Fresh’s regard for the wellbeing of their workforce was also far from exemplary, according to accounts.
‘Some of the foreign workers couldn’t afford food and got caught stealing from Tesco. We saw three women get brought back to the hostel by police on our second day there, then taken away again in one of the farm’s vans,’ says Dave.
‘We spoke to some of the Bulgarian lads about it. They said the women had been arrested, then deported,’ adds Gerry. ‘Barway Services Ltd, which is part of G’s Fresh, recruits people from Romania and Bulgaria and runs the accommodation. Something like half the workers’ wages will get taken for rent and other bullshit fees and the other half goes to their family. So they are receiving far less than minimum wage themselves. That’s why the women were nicking food.’
G’s Fresh website reads: ‘The company is at its heart a family-led business with very strong values for its people… [It’s] a great place to work where openness, respect and teamwork are encouraged in a safe, ethical environment…’
Neither G’s Fresh or Cobrey Farms responded to requests for comment for this piece, so one wonders how the many diligent truth-seekers in our media, like Ferrari and Chandler, failed to uncover similarly disturbing details during their own research. It’s very obvious that farms don’t really want to employ Brits – few are impoverished enough to happily tolerate degrading accommodation or predatory superiors. Those that do are still more likely to complain than Eastern European workers. What’s more, they provide witness to the treatment of migrant pickers, a chief concern of the farms, and are the main reason Brits and picking don’t mix.
*Names have been changed