Without wanting to get into the politics around why we aren’t so financially appealing to migratory labour any more, we should remember that the quality of accommodation is crucial when it comes to completing the package that gives you a return on your staff development budget. Without being cynical, if you’re going to hit that magical 70% of seasonal staff returning year on year, then you need to be training them, appreciating them and also giving them somewhere comfortable to recuperate after working hard for you!
Gone are the days of the huddle of third-hand, leaky, mouldy caravans behind the tractor shed, we are now entering into the era of purpose built accommodation taking advantage of permitted development regulations, created in partnership with local authorities delivering a temporary home in the UK. There is a lot of regulation to ensure that temporary homes meet national safety standards – especially around hygiene and fire safety.
A high quality pick depends, in the end, on a well-trained and refreshed workforce. The cost benefit on your budget from a 70% return rate on last year’s staff mean that your supervisors already know the ropes, the team leaders know where everything is and they are ready to assist the 30% newbies get into the swing of things. “A returning worker is five times more productive in the first three weeks of harvest than a new starter” was a startling statistic quoted to me by Sharon Cross, G’s Group ethical working director, and G’s is a company who really know how accommodation works.
The heart of G’s business is in Ely, part of the commuter belt for both London and Cambridge. Housing is very expensive and there isn’t much available anyway. In the first three weeks of the season they have 1,000 people arrive and this would create far too much pressure on the local infrastructure. Thirty years ago the area was already one of commuters and high levels of employment so it made sense to build their own housing for their seasonal labour. They had come to the conclusion that agency staff were not the way forward as the gangmaster system as it was then didn’t guarantee the same people each day and they weren’t well looked after. So the recruitment and retention of labour as well as the accommodation was all brought in house. The benefits are: that wonderful 70% return rate, which is significant when you need upwards of 2500 people per season as a whole, and workers know that they are getting good hostel accommodation with a structured work package (£350/£400 per week).
G’s have a blend of cabins, caravans, hostels and converted farm structures (a set of redundant grain silos have made a great hostel on one site). The business has a really collaborative relationship with the various local authority planning teams – they have always taken a pre-action collaborative approach. When they began building bespoke hostels – there was no blueprint, there were no guidelines, ethical employment or audits. These days each is site specific and uses local contractors known to the local planning team. They are always sympathetic to the local villages, ensuring that views are canvassed early and listened to. G’s used to have a large number of temporary cabins which needed to come down at the end of the season, permission has now been extended for these to remain up with the same occupancy restrictions applying.
Changes in recent years
Large dormitories are now a thing of the past, rooms for four are the way to go – G’s have seen a sharp increase in the number of couples coming for harvesting jobs and they make up a significant proportion of the returning group.
The average age has risen to 27 (from 23) in 20 years and society has now moved on making the original shared showers inappropriate, modern individual cubicles are now required.
Social time is key
Wifi to all rooms is essential, social areas with film screen capability and access to European TV channels a must.
A shared area for study and the delivery of English lessons is essential both socially and also for improved communication!
Working hard isn’t the be all of getting fit in the UK, sports courts, pitches and somewhere to host a disco, are totally essential, or perhaps access to a regular lift to a swimming pool/gym.
Everyone is more food aware, food prep and shared dining areas are very important for students when making their choices.
Apart from the bank, and tax registrations etc, don’t forget the GP. Knowing that there is a surge in potential patients enables a practice to list this in their seasonal variances reported to the health trust. It is important to remember that these workers are your ambassadors when they return home, you want them to come back with their friends and do a great job again next year. 5* facilities are not the be all and end all of the deal, but making a real effort to make accommodation nice and ensure that they have life outside of harvest will bring them back.
So, if a large hostel isn’t needed, is there another option besides a static caravan. Speaking with Claire from Create a Cabin, she said they’ve built accommodation units of all sizes, or added shower, kitchen/dining rooms and recreational facilities for a number of farms. Supplied as highly insulated panels, this is a kit option you can build yourself. They can also come down annually if your planning permission is for temporary structures only. Claire and her team have a turn round time of four weeks, the cabins are food grade compliant, vermin proof and are entirely bespoke – you supply a plan and then the units are priced at £250m2 for an interior unit and £350/£450 for weather proof external stand alone structures. This is a DIY modular build, all it needs is a good concrete base and you can create accommodation in a redundant building. Highly insulated, they are warmer than a static caravan and come ready for the services to be plugged in – water and power is all that is needed after the slotting together stage. They work in partnership with a French billboard manufacturer who began branching out into security cabins, Claire and her husband saw an opportunity and can now provide flexible accommodation units at a fraction of the cost of traditional build. If you are popping one into an existing building then no permission is required, outside then it is.
Good accommodation is essential, that is the bottom line. With the devaluation of our currency, even if we get a good migratory workers visa scheme we still have to attract people here. The work conducted by the UK Accommodation Working Group following the programme featuring Nickle farm has a set of comprehensive and robust recommendations around best practice, the report is worth a read (copies available from the FPC).