Environment secretary George Eustice has come under sharp criticism after suggesting that workers furloughed due to the COVID-19 should go to the farms and pick up fruit and vegetables as a second job.
Speaking during a daily briefing on Sunday, Eustice shared his insights on how the impending shortage of workforce can be managed. At the moment, Britain’s agriculture is doing fine, yet “we do anticipate” the sector to experience troubles in June at the height of the harvesting season, the official stated.
“We estimate that probably only about a third of the migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here, and was probably here before lockdown,” Eustice said.
We are working with industry to identify an approach which would encourage millions of furloughed workers, in some cases, to consider taking a second job helping to get the harvest in June
The potential lack of workforce in British agriculture has been a very hot topic, and launch of the agro-patriotic ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign has been rumoured for some time already.
Eustice’s have therefore fallen on truly fertile soil, getting under fire from all the sides immediately.
Many argued that the minister’s proposal defeats the purpose of the whole furlough scheme when the government is footing the bill for employees to pay their workers who stay home. While the furloughed staff technically may take a second job, they are allowed to do so only outside of the hours they would normally work – it is best to check with the current employer before doing so. Thus if you work from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, not much time is left to pick veggies.
Some said that fruit picking is not that unskilled labour altogether and herding random white collars into it won’t do the industry any good.
Others suggested looming conflict of interests, pointing fingers at Eustice’s family business – which is a fruit farm – and accusing the minister of seeking cheap, or even free, labour for it.
Many said that if the working conditions and wages in agriculture were even remotely decent, the sector would not have to rely on external labour in the first place.
The pro-EU crowd routinely blamed Brexit for all the turmoil in the agriculture sector and lack of workforce, taking little notice of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, however.
“Instead of looking at those workers and pitting them against each other – Romanian hard-workers vs British lazy f***ers – the government could think about the power relations behind the exploitative practices,” Dr Lisa McKenzie, a sociology professor wrote in a recent piece at RT. “Such as extremely competitive supermarkets forever pushing the amounts they are prepared to pay for fresh fruit and food, forcing farmers to work towards ever-tightening margins and to seek to squeeze down on their costs. And so who ends up suffering? As always, the people at the bottom of the pile.”
The UK is among the worst coronavirus-affected nations with more than 154,000 confirmed cases and an official total of nearly 21,000 dead, according to the latest figures by the John Hopkins University.