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‘A lot of locals don’t want to do manual work anymore... foreign workers have a different psyche’

Brassica farmer David Simmons on his farm in Cornwall
David Simmons is the fifth-generation proprietor of Riviera Produce in Hayle, west Cornwall - Dale Cherry

In the fields of southwest England, those who work the land speak with pride of the fact that a Cornishman can farm “anywhere in the world”.

Most choose home, where over 70 per cent of the land is used for agriculture; 2,642 hectares are dedicated to fruit and veg. But as for those who pick the spoils? Don’t count on it being a local.

In the past two decades David Simmons, the fifth-generation proprietor of Riviera Produce in Hayle, west Cornwall, has seen workers that might once have come from Truro or Mousehole replaced by those flying in from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The 8,000-acre brassica farm, which began with a single cow on a smallholding in 1870, now has 600 employees – but “as we got bigger, it became impossible to recruit local people”, Simmons, 63, says.

While that initially led to pickers for the veg they supply to supermarkets nationwide including Morrisons, Lidl and Asda coming from the likes of Poland, Bulgaria and Lithuania when the EU was established, Brexit and Covid have radically changed the face of their workforce.

Riviera says he has the 'utmost respect' for his workers who come from overseas
Riviera says he has the 'utmost respect' for his workers who come from overseas - Dale Cherry

Now, Riviera has more employees travelling 6,000 miles than six for their day job, which current visa regulations permit them to do for half a year before needing to return home.

There is more than distance separating Simmons’s workers from local recruits. One picker, 23-year-old Ali, interviewed for BBC Two’s Simon Reeve’s Return to Cornwall, told him that he had already bought two houses back home in Tajikistan – and he is emblematic of those who join Riviera’s team, Simmons says, adding that many own their properties, or are building them.

“They’re totally dedicated to earning money and their psyche is totally different to a lot of young people in the UK now. Their psyche is to go out, earn as much money as they can as fast as they can; try and get their house, and get everything they want in life. And you’ve got to admire them for doing it.”

Unfazed by the 5am starts, and often gruelling conditions cast by bitter winter rain or blazing summer heat or unpredictable working weeks, “they’ll work hard, and they’ll start moaning when they haven’t got enough work” – the top end of which can net £150 per day for those who can pick 2,000 cauliflower heads.

The end of free movement for EU workers post-Brexit meant that, when borders open and shut during the pandemic (in April 2020 emergency charter flights for fruit pickers began in order to avoid losing the entire early summer crop), Simmons doubled down efforts to attract local recruits.

He put out television adverts and social media campaigns: 250 people expressed interest, with 37 actually making it in for a day’s picking. After seven weeks, only one remained. Today 75 per cent of his pickers are from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; he has none from the UK.

Employees now travel 6,000 miles to work: the Wakhan Valley, on the Tajikistan and Afghanistan border
Employees now travel 6,000 miles to work: the Wakhan Valley, on the Tajikistan and Afghanistan border - Getty Images

Are Brits simply too lazy to tend the fields? “A lot of people don’t want to do manual work anymore, unfortunately,” Simmons says, calling back to decades past, when “people appreciated what the countryside was about. Whereas now people have become detached from the countryside. They don’t really understand how it works” (including eating seasonally, the disappearance of which Simmons says is “such a shame”).

Now, 98 per cent of the UK’s 45,000 pickers come from elsewhere, including Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, Barbados, Kenya and Nepal.

Add to this landscape the glut of opportunities in the (indoor) hospitality sector, “a welfare state, which supports people that are not willing to work”, and the Covid-induced home working boom, and farming simply cannot compete, Simmons says. “People used to live to work. Now they live and do the work on the side.”

Simmons, whose son Tom, 32, is MD and the sixth-generation family member working for the business, still holds out hope that the winds may change.

“At the end of the day, our door is always open for any Cornish people that want to come across or any British people who want to come across and work.” But while “we do an awful lot with the local area trying to pull people into work for us” – attending primary schools and sixth forms, recruitment fairs and job centres – interest remains all but nil. “I don’t think [there] is” a way of returning to how things once were, he adds. “People [in Cornwall] don’t want to do this sort of work.”

The droves of overseas employees arriving at his gates drew the ire of locals years ago, Simmons says, but – with some having acquired settled status – they have integrated into the community. “The children are going to schools, they live in houses which they bought in the locality, and they’re mixing in with the local[s]. People now almost look up to these people that are working the hours that they are … they admire them for what they do.”

As a percentage of the county at large, they still remain the extreme minority: according to the 2021 Census, 1.1 per cent of Cornwall residents defined their ethnic category as “other”, and 96.8 per cent as “white”.

Simmons knows that UK wages alone are not enough to lure overseas workers in. A survey from the National Farmers Union last year found that £60 million of produce had been wasted due to labour shortages, amounting to thousands of tonnes of perfectly good food being thrown out.

Staffing levels were on average 14 per cent below required levels, and nine per cent of workers leaving their contracts early. Reports of mistreatment for pickers also abound: one woman from South Africa described the conditions she was living and working in within the UK as being “like prison”, where she and her colleagues “weren’t viewed like humans”.

As such, the onus is increasingly on farmers like Simmons to prove themselves an attractive prospect to potential recruits. “They come back again [the following year, per visa regulations], if we make their experiences as best as we can for them.”

Riviera works with recruitment companies who source workers primarily in the old Soviet Bloc and tell them what the job entails; they then fly over and live in campervans that sleep two to six people. Recruits are mostly male but some are female, are typically aged between 20 and 40, and some arrive with relatives.

Ali was sharing a double bed with his uncle. “The people that come over are wonderful people, they really are,” says Simmons. “I’ve got the utmost respect for them, to go from one side of the world to the other and do this.”

Such close quarters and long hours inevitably make for strong bonds between pickers, too. On the day war broke out in Ukraine last February, “the Russians were in the office crying, because they didn’t want to see this … they were distraught about it, they really were. It’s been quite a stressful time for the people that were working for us, and we’ve tried to give them counselling and help them the best way we can.”

As for British workers, Riviera says 'a lot of people don’t want to do manual work anymore'
As for British workers, Riviera says 'a lot of people don’t want to do manual work anymore' - Dale Cherry

The Government raised the quota for international pickers from 2,500 in 2019 to 45,000 this year and next (which “can be increased by another 10,000 a year if the Government considers it necessary to meet demand”).

Boris Johnson’s administration promised that the existing Seasonal Worker scheme would be in place until “at least the end of 2024”, but that the quota would be gradually reduced; Rishi Sunak’s has instead expanded it. Promises of legislation being set in stone long-term increasingly appear to be ditched.

“How can we plan, how can we work out how to invest in the future and which direction to take,” without a clue what might happen 12 months down the line, Simmons remonstrates.

Grants are periodically floated, yet “aren’t targeted towards the horticultural industry”; pledges made in 2016 have failed to materialise. “We were promised that all this money that we used to get from Brexit would be passed on to the agriculture and horticulture industry – well, nowhere near is that being done,” Simmons says.

The Government is “not supporting us financially or supporting us in spirit, and it’s very frustrating”. Worse still, “we do find that the Government is always trying to trip us up rather than actually encourage us”.

This is an obvious own-goal, Simmons says: growing more produce here would strengthen our food security (following the invasion of Ukraine, food prices rose at the fastest rate for since the late 1970s, with the Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, warning in August that they may never fall back to where they were before).

The Government’s disinterest is a health matter too, Simmons adds, as homegrown fruit and veg “help reduce obesity. We’ve got the ability to grow a lot more in the UK, fruit and veg, but we need the support of the Government to do it.”

Defra says that the “domestic horticulture sector is crucial to the resilience of our food system and an important part of the wider economy … In line with our manifesto commitment, we are investing £2.4 billion annually into the farming sector and at our Farm to Fork Summit this year, we announced a package of measures to protect farmers’ interests in future trade deals, boost domestic fruit and veg production and deliver new investment in farm technologies.”

Longer-term commitment where workers’ legal status is concerned is required to boost growing in Britain, Simmons says. Only then can farmers “actually have some confidence in our industry to invest in the future”.