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Monday, 12 August, 2002, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Why florists need foreigners
SGP glasshouse
Welcome to the sunny side of the immigration debate

Growing flowers ought to be a whimsical, romantic business.

If there weren't East European labour available, supermarkets wouldn't have much on their shelves

Jeff Hooper
Far from it: what with wafer-thin margins, crippling time pressure and the unceasing demands of the supermarkets that dominate the sector, there is no room for sentiment.

"We live and die by the market," says Jeff Hooper, chairman of Southern Glasshouse Produce (SGP), Britain's biggest grower.

With a booming 1.5bn domestic market, and worldwide exports as far afield as Japan, cut flowers are one of the few areas where Britain's countryside is flourishing.

And like many of the country's other bounciest businesses, it would be unthinkable without immigrant labour.

Many hands make light work

The rise of the combine harvester and the milking machine may have eclipsed the farm labourer throughout much of Britain.

SGP packers
Diligent, skilled and available

But in horticulture, the fiddly business of picking berries or packing lettuces still requires nimble fingers.

Mr Hooper's business is less labour-intensive than most - at his main glasshouse near Bognor Regis in West Sussex, robots do the cutting and some of the processing, and climate and lighting can be controlled remotely by computer.

Since mechanisation, SGP's glasshouses employ one person an acre, compared with four previously.

But the demands of grading, packing and despatching mean SGP still employs 45 in its main packing centre, and 250 groupwide.

Because of the drastic seasonal swings in demand, most are flexible agency staff.

Growing pains

And most are from Eastern Europe, largely from the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

Seasonal farm workers

SGP has expanded massively, from a turnover of 1m 15 years ago to more than 40m today - despite a drop in the real price of flowers over the same period.

"As we grew, we tried to employ local people, but the availability and the quality became abysmal," Mr Hooper says.

"Now, there are effectively no unemployed people in West Sussex.

"It would be impossible to replace our current workers locally for almost any money."

Willing and able

Nor is it simply a question of availability.

East European workers, Mr Hooper says, are often better qualified and motivated than their British equivalents.

"I find them generally extremely diligent. They are people like teachers, students and so on.

"There are 15 trained florists among them. I couldn't get 15 trained florists in the whole of Sussex for love nor money.

"If there weren't East European labour available, supermarkets wouldn't have much on their shelves."

Farmer's army

Mr Hooper's experience is mirrored at farms and market gardens throughout the country, especially on the south coast, and especially in seasonal crops such as beans, which are harvested with the help of a summer influx of East European students.

Jeff Hooper
Don't snub the growers, pleads Mr Hooper

Of the 64,000 seasonal and casual workers, who swell Britain's farm payroll by about 50% in summer, at least one-third are certainly foreign, and the proportion could be even greater.

Many arrive under the Home Office's Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme (Saws), which provides summer work permits mainly to students under a strict quota scheme.

Excessive demand, both from employers and workers, has seen Saws swell from a quota of 5,500 permits in the early 1990s to 18,700 this year, rising to 20,200 in 2003.

Bigger and better

Saws, broadly, works.

It is hassle-free and - at least compared with similar work-permit programmes - notably unleaky: fewer than 10% of participants outstay their visas.

Saws quotas

But everyone agrees that it does not go far enough.

In May, the Home Office published a consultation paper on Saws, which aims to come up with some recommendations for the scheme by the end of this month.

According to one of the government's plans for developing sustainable farming after the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, Saws may have to exceed 50,000 permits in order to keep pace with demand.

Going green

Farmers, meanwhile, want to see the scheme broadened out more ambitiously.

"The solution is not just to add more to the scheme, but to come up with a completely new scheme entirely," says David Butterworth of the Kent National Farmers' Union (NFU), who has researched the agricultural labour shortage.

The NFU, and growers such as Mr Hooper, want to see a more generous "green card" programme for foreign farm workers, providing fast-track permits where workplace shortfalls cannot be met locally.

Saws deliberately restricts the labour pool by favouring young people in full-time education.

And, crucially, it only operates between May and the end of November, ignoring the increasingly year-round nature of British growing.

"The guys packing tomatoes will grow them in the UK in the summer, and in Spain in the winter, but their British pack-house runs 363 days a year," Mr Hooper says.

Political problems

Mr Hooper would like to see horticulture officially labelled a "shortage occupation", the Home Office tag that has already eased immigration into Britain's teaching, healthcare, hi-tech and other professions.

Selected shortage occuptions
GPs and consultants
Nurses and midwives
Software engineers
Railway, road and bridge engineers
Veterinary surgeons
Source: Home Office.
But he acknowledges that the chances are slim.

The government, he says, has little interest in growers, concentrating its attention - and all its subsidies - on the larger but less profitable arable and livestock farm sectors.

Nor do the authorities want to be seen to encourage relatively unskilled immigration.

And last year, the immigration authorities made a series of splashy raids on agribusinesses across the south, with the aim of cracking down on the "gangmasters" who traffic in illegal workers.

That was shortly before the last general election.

Flower-growing may be a hard-nosed business, but compared with politics, it's child's-play.

See also:

05 Aug 02 | UK
25 Jun 02 | Politics
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