Romanian workers turn backs on UK farms

 

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“This is the hardest year,” says Alexandru Barbacaru, director of Est-Vest Services, a Romanian employment agency for temporary workers for the UK.

Sitting in his office in central Bucharest, his desk cluttered with filled-in application forms and tax documents for past and present workers, Barbacaru explains the mounting difficulties for companies such as his, which for years have helped supply British farms with the fruit pickers and other labourers they need to bring in their harvests.

“Three years ago we filled nearly 5,000 jobs. This year we’ll probably fill 3,000, 3,500,” he says. “In June I spent about $2,000 on Facebook ads [for recruits]. Last year we didn’t have to spend any.”

British farms have long relied on eastern Europe for seasonal labour, and in recent years the workers have overwhelmingly come from newer EU member states such as Romania and Bulgaria. However, owing to Brexit, the weakened pound and strong economies elsewhere on the continent, farms in the UK are less enticing prospects, and recruiters are struggling to fill their order books while also needing to raise their fees.

“This year is going to be a learning curve for some farms,” says Barbacaru, a 20-year veteran of the industry, whose company has begun to focus more on recruiting for skilled labour jobs such as welders and butchers. He pulls up an email he received earlier in the day from a farm in Scotland, which was looking for 50-100 people to start work immediately, to make his point.

“Many farms are used to going to their workers and saying: ‘I need 30, 40 people, who has interested friends?’ and in a week 30 or 40 people would show up. It’s not happening any more. There are no workers here, unemployment is very low. Last year they probably felt it was harder, this year even more, and it is only going to be harder and harder in the future.”

In June the British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade organisation announced that its members were 10-15% short of labour, and the shortfall was expected to be more than 30% by the autumn. Meanwhile, in a survey by the National Farmers’ Union, horticulture farms in the UK reported a 12.5% shortfall in seasonal workers in 2017.

In Romania the unemployment rate is at its lowest in a quarter of a century, and the economy grew 7% in 2017, the fastest rate in the EU. Neighbouring Bulgaria’s unemployment rate has also been dropping steadily in recent years. And while many eastern Europeans continue to leave home to take up seasonal work, increasingly they are going elsewhere on the continent, where wages are often now higher.

“We’ve never had people in the past asking about jobs in Germany, it was always ‘can we go to England?’. Now probably 30% of the phone calls are about elsewhere,” says Barbacaru, highlighting the impact of the depreciation of the pound, which fell to a 31-year low in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote and has failed to recover significantly.

Other recruiting firms are also struggling to find people. “The demand that we have is that we should be recruiting in excess of 4,000 people this year. It’s unlikely we will hit that target, so farms will be very stretched,” says Douglas Amesz, who, along with his Romanian wife, runs AG Recruitment and Management, which recruits heavily in Romania and Bulgaria. “Most British farms are sympathetic and understanding of our position, but tensions are rising and people’s frustrations are simmering.”

Amesz says there has been a psychological blow from Brexit. “It’s created hesitation and doubt, and that has caused people to look elsewhere. Previously we were on a bit of a pedestal. Brexit knocked us off that pedestal,” he says.

“I’ve heard from many people about the Brexit impact,” says Catalin Pascanu, managing director at Albatross, a Bucharest-based travel agency that brings seasonal workers from Romania to the UK, working with a recruiting firm. “The authorities in the UK didn’t consult organisations from horticulture or agriculture, organisations that unfortunately now see this impact.”

With fewer prospective workers coming to them, recruiters are being forced to look further afield to find people willing to go to work temporarily in the UK.

“Three years ago we only had one office in Romania and one in Bulgaria, and I was always amazed by how far people would travel to come to see us, coming 400km to visit our office,” says Amesz. “Since then, with Brexit fast-tracking it, we have to travel to every corner of the country to meet people. We now have four offices in Romania and two in Bulgaria. We have to get out to find people and sell the idea of the UK and working on a farm there.”

The costs associated with the process have tripled, he says, “if not quadrupled”. And while 10 years ago they mostly recruited university students who spoke English, that is not the case today. “Today we don’t recruit any students, they [the recruits] don’t speak English and they aren’t educated.”

Despite this, there are still many in Romania wanting to travel to the UK to do seasonal work. “I prefer to go to the England,” says Alex Avram, 20, from the city of Oradea, on the country’s western border with Hungary.

Avram, who doesn’t speak English, aims to leave next month, once he can find a recruiting company and a farm he trusts. His future parents-in-law did similar work in the UK last year and plan to go again this year, and Avram is not worried about Brexit-related issues. “I’ve never been abroad before, so I’m cautious, I just want to make sure I will get paid,” he says.

However, for British farmers hoping this year and last were exceptions, and that eastern European seasonal workers will come flooding back, the recruiter Amesz has a stark message.

“It’s not a problem that’s going to go away. It was difficult last year, is more difficult this year, and next year it will be harder again.”

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