farm worker

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The seasonal agricultural workers scheme was expanded to 30,000 permits in December

The government has appointed the first additional operator of the expanded seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot, The Grocer can reveal.

AG Recruitment and Management – a Kent-based specialist in agricultural recruitment – was formally licensed by the Home Office on 23 April to help run the scheme, which was expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 worker permits in December.

According to its website, the company has supplied labour to more than 120 farms across the UK and Ireland. It claims to be the only labour provider in the UK to offer a “fully integrated” selection, recruitment and support service with full oversight over its supply chain.

AG also runs 12 offices across Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria – key recruitment areas for UK horticulture businesses. A further office is due to open in Ukraine next week while additional offices in other countries are also in the pipeline.

Operations director and co-owner of AG Estera Amesz – who runs the business alongside her husband Doug - told The Grocer she was “flattered” her business had been selected to help run the pilot.

“We want to make a difference. The reason why we started this business was we wanted to challenge the industry’s approach to recruitment. We felt workers were not prepared properly for what they were going to come to [in the UK],” she said.

Amesz, who is originally from Romania, said she had gained this perspective having spent 19 years in UK horticultural roles. Both she and her husband were working on farms until seven years ago when they decided to focus on the recruitment business full time.

“Having been a picker, supervisor and then a manager, I understand the financial pressure [faced by growers], the pressure of selling to the supermarkets, packhouse operations and the pressure in the fields. We want to make the industry proud and make sure we do a good job.”

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The Faversham-headquartered company joins existing SAWS operators Concordia and Pro-Force, which have run the pilot since its relaunch in 2018.

Despite reiterating the extended SAWS scheme would be helpful to growers, British Summer Fruits chairman Nick Marston suggested the timing of AG’s appointment and the lack of an announcement on who the other operator is would see farms struggle to recruit the right standard of worker in time for the start of the season.

“We do appreciate the Home Office and Defra have processes to get through and that the government has an awful lot on its agenda. However, in terms of licensing SAWS operators, the later that is done, the less likely it is that the full compliment of people will be available to farms given the season is very close to starting,” Marston said. “Once we got beyond February it was already rather late.”

On its website, Defra said a further operator would be announced “as their due diligence is completed”.

It comes after growers warned leaving the announcement until the end of April would be “too late” for those businesses seeking to recruit labour at the start of the season and follows the government’s decision to scrap the Pick for Britain domestic recruitment campaign.