Having survived too damp a winter, as I write we are enjoying a long spell of fine weather so I guess growers are pushing on with an element of eager anticipation in terms of what might be a quality crop come the autumn.

Through our employment consultancy known as The BTF 50 Club Horticultural Employers Association, we work for and represent about 300 growers on employment matters all over England and Scotland. What we are finding is that generally labour availability is looking tighter as the summer progresses and – given that in the vineyard sector we are having to compete for a very brief harvest period with the wider horticultural sector, it seems sensible to focus early on recruitment of this year’s harvest team. However, how should that be done and what should you bear in mind?

Options for sourcing labour and the Gangmaster & Labour Abuse Authority (“GLAA”)

Many of the small vineyards rely on locals or ‘own recruits’ who come year after year and work hard and also enjoy the harvest “craik”. For bigger operators, the local labour pool does not generally satisfy demand and so the question is how much additional labour is required and where should it come from? The options are quite varied, but they all carry with them their own pitfalls. For example, if you have a friendly fruit farmer nearby who is prepared to ‘lend’ you workers for a couple of weeks to get the job done, they are technically acting as a gangmaster in providing you with labour and you could be acting in breach of the gangmaster licensing rules in taking provision of that labour. However, if you structure the arrangement properly, it is likely that that arrangement can be slotted into one of the gangmaster licensing “exclusions” such as “farmer to farmer loans” (see: http://www.gla.gov.uk/i-am-a/i-supply-workers/do-i-need-a-glaa-licence/which-activities-need-a-licence/exclusions/) and we tend to frequently advise on how that works.

Alternatively, many in the industry prefer simply to contact a known gangmaster and take on the labour on the traditional gang labour basis, whereby you pay the gangmaster direct for the labour that he/she has provided you with and his fee covers all employment related costs including tax, National Insurance, holiday pay, etc. This is always going to be more expensive as of course the gangmaster needs to make his margin. However again, a user is potentially guilty of a criminal offence if he or she is taking labour from an unlicensed gangmaster and so at the very least the prudent labour user will look the gangmaster up on the GLAA website and check their licence and also register under the GLA ‘Active Check’ facility.

As mentioned above, the cheaper option is own recruitment and/or word of mouth. But, a word of caution on using existing/former employees to find workers for you. Again, the gangmaster regulations may come into play since if an individual recruits labour for you while not being actually employed by you at the time, they are then acting as a gangmaster themselves and both they and you are in breach of the rules.

Paying seasonal harvest workers

Treating those that do harvest work for you under your instruction as self-employed, is generally incorrect and so HMRC are likely to challenge that – as the taxi company Uber has recently discovered in a different context. In fact, I would argue that most harvest staff are technically employees, not even workers, but, how you should you pay them and what are they entitled to?

Some farmers pay by the hour and some on piece rates. Which approach you take is immaterial, but in either case the Minimum Wage rules must be complied with. Currently anyone aged 25 and over must be paid at least £7.83 per hour and – even if on piece rates – you need to have systems in place to check that they have all received an average of the applicable minimum wage for their pay reference period (be it the day, the week or the month).

Most growers we come across these days pay all of their employees net of tax and NI through PAYE. However, strictly for those:

  •  harvesting perishable produce outside (so no good for pruning etc),
  •  paid in cash at the end of each day or part day; and
  • with no contract for further employment beyond the day in question,

it is still possible to use the harvest casual concession and details are available on the web. You must follow the rules to the letter and keep records for an absolute minimum of three years. Remember also that in all cases holiday pay is due – even for daily casuals.