We’ve written several pieces lately addressing the launch of The London Produce Show and Conference:
As the United Kingdom is such a focal import hub, the London event will stand on its own and exhibitors from around the world will gather to access the market.
Yet, increasingly, such events are about more than trade… they are about intellectual exchange.
We have to credit the Australians with setting the pace on this. For years, hundreds of Australians have come to the PMA convention in the US, though the amount of business between the US and Australia is quite small. Yet they keep coming because they find it profitable.
Profit is, of course, a broad term, and profit comes from gaining information, building a business network and much more.
One of the things we have observed is that issues in the UK are often quite similar to those we wrestle with here in the US. You visit the New Covent Garden Market in London, and the wholesalers start talking about building a new market, and if you close your eyes, you would swear you are on the Hunts Point Market in New York talking about the obstacles to their rebuilding project.
Immigration is another issue which the produce industry is wrestling with on both sides of the pond.
We’ve written a great deal on this issue in the US, and, right now, despite the produce trade’s best efforts, legislation appears to be going nowhere.
Fresh produce leaders have reacted angrily to the government’s decision to scrap the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which allows fruit and vegetables growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months at a time.
Meurig Raymond, deputy president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), branded the decision to close the scheme at the end of 2013 “devastating” and said growers would be outraged.
“Make no mistake, this will cause a contraction in the British horticulture sector, one which is already suffering from falling self-sufficiency levels,” said Raymond. “It will put thousands of existing permanent UK jobs at risk, stifle growth, compromise food security, and jeopardise the industry’s efforts to take on hundreds more UK unemployed for permanent work.”
The issues they wrestle with in the UK are not dissimilar to those we wrestle with in the US. For example, the piece goes on to point out that domestic production agriculture is threatened by a lack of labor:
British Growers’ Association chief executive James Hallett warned the decision could lead to fruit and vegetable production moving to outside the UK. “Without adequate and reliable staffing levels, it is almost inevitable that many UK producers will cancel investment plans and switch production out of the UK,” he said.
And growers in the UK also find that citizens of their own country are just not interested in the work:
Currently around a third of staff employed at harvest come through SAWS, and Hallett said despite huge efforts by the industry, and the high levels of domestic unemployment, British workers were simply not attracted to seasonal outdoor work, paid largely at the minimum wage.
Of course, US growers mostly claim they pay significantly in excess of the US minimum wage, but the point remains that producers both in the US and the UK feel that citizens are just not interested in the work.
Michael Barker, Editor at the Fresh Produce Journal, wrote a separate editorial titled, Why the Government’s SAWS Call is All Wrong, that captured the similarity between the dilemma of the produce industry in the UK and the USA:
The government’s absurd decision to axe the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme shows a complete lack of understanding of the food production sector.
Immigration minister Mark Harper seems to think that Romanians and Bulgarians gaining full EU working rights from next January means there will be more than enough people to fill the horticultural industry’s needs.
But the opposite is the case. The fact that people from these two nations will no longer be restricted to agricultural and other limited work means they will be far less likely to want to take employment as pickers and packers. After all, would you want to work in a freezing Lincolnshire field when you could take a job in a nice warm office?
In the US, the issue is more likely to be who wants to work in a hot field when one could work in a nice air-conditioned office? But the point is the same. For all the trade’s deep involvement in the immigration issue, it really stands apart, and for the same reason that Michael Barker identifies in the UK: No broad immigration reform, liberal or conservative, would really help the produce industry.
Tight rules that restrict immigration won’t allow for the labor that is needed, and more liberal laws, allowing for lots of legal immigration won’t help either because legal immigrants will gravitate to other sectors before production agriculture. So the industry needs a specialized side deal, a visa or guest worker program that is exclusive to agriculture, which they had in the UK until this recent reform.
Furthering dialog on issues such as this, comparing experiences, finding common ground, are all part of the vision of the new London Produce Show and Conference. If you would like to be a part of it, please let us know below:
If you are interested in exhibiting, let us know here.
If you would like to consider sponsoring an event, let us know at this link.
And if you would like attendee information, please let us know here.