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The rate of returnees was between 65% and 75% this year so far, according to James Mallick, director of Fruitful Jobs

Growers are welcoming back more returning seasonal workers to farms than in previous years, according to one of the scheme’s core operators.

The rate of returnees was between 65% and 75% this year so far, according to James Mallick, director of Fruitful Jobs, with some farms welcoming back as many as 95% of the same workers as last year.

Having a higher rate of returnees alleviated the challenge of inducting and training new workers, which improved productivity, Mallick explained.

It also showed that many workers were “satisfied with the way they are treated” despite allegations that the industry was rife with human rights violations, he said.

Mallick added that concerns around the operation of the scheme often came from non-representative and “biased” surveys, when, in fact, it was a very “small proportion of the sector that is not having a good experience”.

“Unfortunately, I think what we’re seeing is that small percentage being used as a sledgehammer to say that the industry is rotten and it’s absolutely not,” he explained, pointing to the more recent Defra surveys which showed mostly positive feedback.

He added that Fruitful Jobs had a “good complaint and grievance mechanisms in place” and the operator encouraged workers to use these mechanisms.

“As sponsors, we have such an important to role to play because if the farm was the sponsor, it would be harder for that worker to raise a complaint because its directly linked to their sponsorship,” he said, adding there was always an option to move farms if there was a problem.

Mallick noted this year was going more smoothly than in previous years due to the lack of “challenges that previous seasons have faced” citing Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had affected the scheme over the past few seasons.

Last year was “much more stable, but this year, [close to] a normal year”.

Grower groups have already started to get workers on their land and according to Nick Marston, chairman of British Berry Growers, businesses were feeling “fairly positive in terms of we believe that guys will have enough staff to harvest their crops”.

“They did last year, and we’ve got similar numbers this year,” he explained. However, he said the sector still needed more surety from the government, with an announcement on the continuation of the scheme.

BBG has called for an extension of the scheme to be five-year rolling with nine-month visas, which Marston said would “solve quite a lot of issues” including around pay and worker productivity.

“Nothing’s forever but growers are making investments,” said Marston. “So, knowing that they’re going to have that labour for the next five years is very helpful.”