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COVID-19 Agricultural Update

For years seasonal work in the labour-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors has depended on migrant labour. Brexit has affected supply and we know many of you are encountering difficulties in recruiting enough workers to harvest time-sensitive crops.

The NFU recently estimated that as many as 80,000 seasonal fruit and veg pickers are needed for harvesting to prevent crops going to waste. The Covid-19 outbreak has added to the problem.

Pick for Britain: DEFRA has launched its ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign to try to encourage people to work on UK farms.  It is intended that this will provide a hub to direct people to jobs harvesting crops which are just coming into season. Unfortunately, despite high levels of initial interest, it is still proving difficult to recruit enough workers.

Employing UK furloughed staff: the government has suggested employees who are furloughed could help by working on British farms which are facing a major shortfall in migrant labour due to movement restrictions.

Before you recruit someone on furlough you should consider the following practicalities

  • Government guidance specifies workers may carry out other employment while placed on furlough “if their contract allows”. Furloughed workers could be in breach of their main employment contract as it is common to include express or implied terms that the employee should not work elsewhere. If you are taking someone on it is good practice to obtain written agreement from their original employer as to the nature and length of other work they can carry out whilst furloughed
  • furloughed employees are signed off in 3-week periods and may have to return to their original jobs before the end of the picking season in September
  • taking on new workers may require considerable training and not be cost-effective

Romanian & Bulgarian Workers: Farmers Weekly and the National press have reported on Romanian and Bulgarian workers being flown in to cover the shortage of local workers. Romania & Bulgaria have lifted restrictions allowing their farmworkers to fly overseas (including the UK) to carry out seasonal work. These experienced seasonal farmworkers could be a great asset and help lead and train new workers.

  • the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals) allows you to hire workers to work in the UK for up to six months.
  • workers will need to have a work card issued from one of the nine Home Office approved Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) operators before applying for the programme.
  • procedures have been put in place to help prevent the spread of coronavirus during travel.

GLAA temporary licensing scheme The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) are issuing temporary licences during the coronavirus outbreak to help critical food supply sectors to run as smoothly as possible.

  • temporary licences may be issued for a period initially lasting up to three months. This may change if the coronavirus situation changes
  • applications must be sponsored by an existing GLAA licence holder who is expected to carry out due diligence checks in line with the authority’s licensing standards.

 

Business rates relief and grants

If you are a farmer who has diversified, you should check if you (or your tenants) are eligible for and receiving business rates relief and grants under government Covid-19 support measures.

Leisure and hospitality ventures: if your farm business pays rates for retail, leisure, and hospitality enterprises, you could potentially have your bill zeroed. The government’s retail discount scheme covers leisure and hospitality ventures, and relief from rates payments has been increased to 100%.

The relief is administered through your local council and you are not required to make an application. However, if you think you carry out qualifying activities, (camping & glamping, pony or llama trekking etc, it may be worth contacting your local council to highlight your eligibility status.

Diversified farm business grants:  there are two separate grant streams available for small rural enterprises.

  • £10,000 grant for businesses on the local authority ratings list which do not pay rates because the rateable value is <£15K: and which receive small business rate relief typical for farm diversifications) or rural rates relief, usually granted for essential services such as village shops.

If you usually receive one of these reliefs and have not already been contacted, you should contact your local Council.

If you have never applied for small business rate relief or rural rates relief, you may need to access your local Council’s website and complete an online application, if successful this could provide you with rates relief and you should also become eligible for the £10K grant.

  • £25,000 grant if your business is eligible for the expanded retail discount (rateable value between £15,001 and £50,999) again, if you or your tenants have not heard from the local authority, it is worth following this up.

Your duty to farmworkers in reducing the threat of coronavirus

Farmers are included on the list of key workers, published by the government during the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst Social Distancing rules may not affect you if you are a lone farmer, the rules are very important if you employ farmworkers as you have a general duty to have systems in place to ensure employee health and wellbeing.

Emphasise the importance of good hygiene: 

  • provide good sanitary facilities, preferably soap and hot water.
  • if your farmworkers are out on the road provide alcohol wipes, gel, or mobile hand washing facilities.

Maintaining distance: 

  • follow the government’s advice by keeping at least 2m apart (the size of a cow!)
  • do not share vehicles, or if you cannot avoid this disinfect after each use.
  • stagger break times to reduce contact, or encourage staff to take their break in their vehicle.

Identify any members of the workforce who are vulnerable: 

Farming has an ageing population with many over-70s still working on the farm. While it might be difficult to stop these people working, as an employer you have a moral and a legal obligation to apply the rules the government has set. Click here for more information.

Veterinary treatment

  • livestock are still able to receive veterinary care and medicines; however veterinary practices must take a risk-based approach to farm visits.
  • your animals should only be seen in emergencies or where, in the judgement of the vet, urgent assessment and/or treatment is needed
  • you should observe social distancing
  • personal protective equipment such as coveralls and gloves should always be worn.

Communication and Protocols

Make sure your protocols are up to date

  • review management plans
  • where staff have different areas of responsibility, outline key protocols, so others can cover their work if necessary.
  • keep enough staff in the loop in case some go off sick
  • update the whole farm team via text phone, group chat or video call meetings
  • use photos and videos to identify and discuss animal health or other farm issues.

For further information, or to help with your queries, please get in contact with Sally McFadden or a member of the BPE team.

 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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