The influx of eastern European workers to the UK poultry sector has seen migrants fulfilling roles which may have formerly been occupied by British nationals, as more employers view them as a vital resource for their businesses.

Mike Gooding 
Mike Gooding: “Eastern European staff have a good and reliable work ethic.”

Mike Gooding, managing director at the Food Animal Initiative (FAI), regularly employs migrant workers through the Europeople agency. He says that it has become increasingly difficult to find capable staff and they give his company the flexibility it needs to run smoothly.

“Eastern European staff have a good and reliable work ethic they are flexible, skilled and are here to earn money, which means they work hard,” he says.

“We currently have two migrant workers on the farm, but have had up to four at certain times,” says Mr Gooding.

At FAI, the migrant workers are employed full-time but not usually as permanent staff. “They come and stay for a period of time, which suits us and them,” he says.

Accommodation is provided for the workers by FAI, and they are given a variety of tasks within their job role as well as being fully integrated within the farm team.

Opportunities

A migrant worker will be given opportunities to get involved in important duties such as working with the breeding flocks, hatchery operation and the broiler finishing operation, as well as cleaning and the other mundane but essential tasks, says Mr Gooding. FAI views migrant employees as an integral part of the workforce who deserve the same opportunities as other staff, he says.

And using an agency rather than advertising independently works well for FAI when recruiting from overseas. “The recruitment process can take up to three months, but Europeople can fill a role quickly for us,” he explains.

Europeople managing director John Davison also runs his own farm. He says that there are a range of important factors to consider when employing a migrant worker, as well as when employing someone from the UK.

“We always make sure that we interview the candidates in their mother tongue. This is a really important part of the process, as details can get lost in translation.”

Most of the staff at Europeople are Polish, allowing them to communicate with candidates easily.

“First we hold a telephone interview with the candidate and then we often put together a CV for them. The next stage is to meet them face to face and talk things through.

“We have a large database and if the candidates have been with us for a long time, whom we know well, so it is not necessary to meet them again,” he says.

Around 90% of Europeople’s candidates are Polish, with 5% from other EU countries the remainder being UK workers.

The majority of the workers at the FAI are also Polish. But Mr Gooding says that the dynamics are changing as the wages in Poland are getting better and the workers tend to come over because they want to.

Mr Davison says the environment for food and farming has changed dramatically over the last few years. From 2004 to 2006 there was a huge pay differential between Poland and the UK. However, this has changed massively and the economic situation in Poland has improved, as has the exchange rate, he says.

The flow of Polish workers has slowed down, there are still a great many people who can be recruited. “We still couldn’t get this standard of worker from the UK market that easily,” says Mr Davison.

He says there is a generation skills gap in the UK between the ages of 20 and 40, and to put this right will take huge effort from education and industries. There is no simple solution.

Rural areas

“We have recruited from other countries, but Poland is much bigger than any of the EU accession countries and there are bigger rural areas,” he says.

“There is a pool of talent in eastern Europe with farming backgrounds, but whereas before they were knocking on the door, now we have to advertise and work a bit harder to attract them.

“The biggest strength for us is our name and our existing database of candidates, some of whom go home and then return,” adds Mr Davison.

Where the language barrier can sometimes be a problem, Mr Gooding point outs that this is usually due to UK inadequacies, rather than those of the migrant workers.

“At FAI we worked hard at this and have arranged English courses for migrant workers and this can help to a degree. But it is important that we hire workers with a basic understanding of English.

“I think this is something we need to address as an industry migrants are a significant and valuable part of our workforce,” says Mr Gooding.

Mr Davison explains that it is important to work together with the employer to overcome any language barriers.

“We can help by translating health and safety documents, and there is an English test that we ask candidates to take and score them out of 10. Employers sometimes ring up, and we have people here at the end of the phone to help,” says Mr Davison.

Straightforward

“Generally for the EU accession countries, the rules for working in the UK are fairly straightforward. However, the rules for Bulgaria and Romania are going to change at some point. But for now, we don’t recruit from these countries because it is too complicated,” he says.

An employer will need a copy of the employee’s passport, and the worker should apply to join the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) at a cost of £90. They will need a letter from their employer to join the scheme, explains Mr Davison.

“The employer and Europeople are not allowed to take the passport off the worker and, therefore, we cannot enforce that they join the WRS scheme. We have to persuade the worker to spend their £90 and sent it to the agency – we can’t force them to do it.

“The authorities will say if they don’t have their WRS scheme then they are working illegally. It is critical to get a copy of their passport, a copy of the application form and get the WRS form sent off. Once the form is sent back to the employer, you can then get National Insurance numbers,” he adds.

Migrant workers can only work legally for 30 days without it, unless they have been in the UK for more than a year and these rules therefore no longer apply.

There is £10,000 fine for an employer caught employing an illegal worker. And if you knowingly do it, you can be jailed for up to two years, says Mr Davison.

Mr Davison also says that it is important for an employer to take into account cultural differences.

“Polish workers are prepared to graft, this is what their parents did and there are no issues with that. Perhaps it has been easier for other workers here who may not want to graft as much,” says Mr Davison.

“However, we have never sold this as a cheap alternative, as you cannot pay somebody less for doing the same job. But, where you get your value from is that you often recruit a higher quality candidate,” he says.

And Mr Gooding agrees that it can be difficult to find hardworking people for the equivalent roles in the UK whether they are British or any other nationality.

“Good people are what make the business tick, and while there are plenty with degrees, they tend to be over qualified, inexperienced, with expectations not satisfied by work on the farm” he says. The flexibility that it offers the FAI is important from a business point of view, as well as helping to find willing people, says Mr Gooding.

Migrant 
Many UK farms are taking advantage of a pool of talent from eastern Europe with farming backgrounds, such as catching poultry.