Determination to save the South East’s fruit and vegetable crop from disaster has seen recruitment expert Doug Amesz spend the past few months in Ukraine, racing against the clock to recruit seasonal workers. Doug’s company AG Recruitment, which he runs with wife and fellow founder Estera, is one of four agencies selected by the Home Office to recruit the 30,000 workers allowed into the country this year as part of the seasonal workers pilot scheme.
“We are delighted to have been given the chance to support UK fruit and veg growers in this way and we are excited about helping to deliver on the objectives of the scheme, but everything is so last minute that it really has become a race against time,” Doug said.
The crisis was sparked by the late approval given by the Home Office to the two new companies invited to help find skilled pickers. Although Doug knew some time ago that his company had been selected, he was not able to start recruiting workers because he could not confirm he had won the contract until due diligence checks had been carried out. The final go-ahead only arrived at the end of April.
“In the meantime the weeks were passing by, fruit and veg were growing in the fields and growers were becoming increasingly anxious about how they were going to get their crops harvested,” Doug explained. “As it happens we are very lucky that this year’s harvest has been delayed by the cold spring. We are still going to be up against it to get the workforce over in time, but that has at least given us a bit of breathing space.”
To make matters worse, workers Doug used to recruit from Bulgaria and Romania are now less keen on coming over to the UK because of the additional costs they face post-Brexit and the fact that many of them feel unwelcome here.
To meet the shortfall, AG Recruitment has switched its focus to Ukraine, which is outside the EU, but that has meant setting up four new offices, recruiting and training 15 new members of his team to staff those offices and essentially setting up a new business.
“We are trying to set up a new business at the same time as running that business on all cylinders in order to meet the demand we face,” Doug said. “There is no way you would do things this way under normal circumstances. Dealing with a different banking system and complex bureaucracy in an unfamiliar business environment while fielding calls every day from growers desperate for staff – it’s extraordinarily challenging but we are determined not to let our clients down.”
The good news is that the Ukrainian workforce is keen and skilled – “as good as any we have recruited in recent years” – and will serve UK growers well once they begin to arrive on the South East’s farms, hopefully by the beginning of June. AG Recruitment is licensed to recruit 7,500 workers before the end of the year, although in reality almost all of them are needed over the next few months.
Even now, the process is proving more complicated than it should be. Once the AG Recruitment team has screened applicants and granted them a certificate of sponsorship, they need to make an appointment at a specialised centre that records the biometric details they need for their visa application. “There is only one centre in Ukraine and it seems to have a rolling waiting list of three weeks,” Doug said. “We can request ‘on demand’ sessions, but that, of course, comes at an extra cost.
“The real problem is that the Home Office just didn’t plan ahead or create the capacity to process 30,000 visa applications and it left the whole thing far too late. This really can’t be allowed to happen again next year and I think there should be a formal government review into how this was handled.” With far fewer workers with settled and pre-settled status showing interest in working on UK fruit and vegetable farms this year and attempts to recruit a domestic workforce also unsuccessful, Doug believes that the industry should be asking for 60,000 overseas workers to be allowed into the country next year.
“The point is, though, that decision needs to be made now, not when it’s too late. The Home Office understandably wants to make decisions based on past data, but by the time they’ve collected the data we’ve missed the boat. This kind of chaos mustn’t be allowed to happen again.”