• This article looks at whether furloughed workers provide the answer to the current farming labour shortage due to coronavirus. 

    On Tuesday 19 May 2020, Environment Secretary George Eustice used the daily government briefing to again encourage British people (and especially those on furlough leave) to help out with this years’ harvest, which begins in June. He directed the public to the Pick for Britain website to register their interest and find jobs (which subsequently crashed due to the volume of traffic). Prince Charles also lent his support, releasing a video in support of the campaign.

    The government estimates that approximately two-thirds of the industry’s seasonal workforce that would usually be in the country for the farming harvest are not here.

    It has previously been estimated by the National Farmers Union (NFU) that approximately 95% of the industry’s seasonal workforce will be prevented from coming to UK farms to pick fruit and vegetables, due to coronavirus and associated travel restrictions.

    Without this temporary labour, many farmers fear that supplies of fruit and vegetables will be left to perish. The peak harvest season begins in earnest in June, and it’s estimated that 70,000 temporary workers are needed to ensure fresh food is picked and the food supply chain is kept afloat.

    The UK farming industry was facing labour shortages even before the impact of coronavirus could be felt, and recruitment drives for a homegrown, UK workforce appeared to be struggling to get off the ground. Brexit and a tough stance on immigration certainly seemed to result in many seasonal EU workers leaving the UK.

    So how does the government’s call to action fit with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and employees committing to stop working during this time?

    Working while on furlough leave

    The Government’s guidance and the Treasury Direction to HMRC (the law underpinning how payments are made under the furlough scheme) is clear. It states that once an individual has been furloughed, they must cease working for their employer.

    That does not mean that an individual cannot work elsewhere while they have been furloughed from their main employment. As long as their new employer is not linked to their current employer, and their employment contracts do not prevent them from working for someone else, employees can work elsewhere while furloughed. Indeed, the government has even clarified that furlough workers can apply for temporary farm jobs, if their contracts permit it.

    Check the contract

    Workers who have been furloughed should check their contract to ensure they are not prevented from working for another employer. If there is a clause preventing other work, employees will need to get permission from their employer before they take up any farming work. If they don’t, they will be in breach of contract.

    In many cases, employers will likely give consent, as it will provide employees with some extra income while they are otherwise not able to work. The important thing for employers will be to ensure that they treat all requests consistently. However, there may be occasions where an employer may have legitimate concerns about allowing its employees to work somewhere else. For example, what if they are needed to return to their original job at short notice? What if they are currently desk based, and injure themselves doing physical fruit picking work and need to go off sick? What if they prefer fruit picking and don’t want to come back at all?

    Employers who are faced with a request from a worker for their consent to work elsewhere should think carefully before agreeing, although the temporary nature of fruit picking work would likely fit well with a period of furlough leave.

    Further support

    For more information about how to deal with a farming labour shortage due to coronavirus or any other employment issues, including how to engage temporary workers on fixed term contracts, contact Brachers’ Employment team.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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