The days of consumers turning a blind eye to labour standards may be numbered.
When workers in the gently sloping fields of Wash Farm, in Devon, were picking vegetables this summer, there was an unusual sound. As they uprooted carrots in polytunnels or harvested Swiss chard, an unusually high proportion were speaking to each other in English. The prevalence of English on the farm — headquarters of Riverford Organics, a supplier of organic fruit and vegetables — reflected the year’s unique circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic, which prevented many eastern Europeans who normally make up most of the farm’s workforce from reaching England, meant around six in every 10 workers this summer were British.
But for Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford’s founder, the business’s success in running for at least a season on a mainly domestically recruited workforce was a vindication of his philosophy of employment. With 99 per cent of workers in some types of UK farming business EU nationals, mainly from poorer member states such as Romania and Bulgaria, Mr Singh-Watson has long aspired to work his land with people who have a long-term stake in the area. The ambition reflects Mr Singh-Watson’s conviction that good workforce practices are critical to producing healthy, environmentally sustainable food. He points out, for example, that farms that ditch manual labourers for automation in packing often waste more produce.
The machines can handle only a limited range of sizes of vegetables such as courgettes. His view aligns with an increasingly widespread view in many parts of the world that consumers should be considering the wellbeing of the workers who farm their food as much as the nature of the fertiliser used on their fruit or the freedom given to their chickens. “I never liked that much,” Mr Singh-Watson says of the days when, before coronavirus, the business was bringing in 80 per cent of its workers from mainland Europe at harvest time. “I do think we should try to provide jobs for local people.”
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