Back in 2001, when Salih Hodzov made the move to the UK and began working as a fruit picker at WB Chambers, the minimum wage stood at a modest £3.70 per hour—a significant leap from the meager monthly wage of approximately €35 in his home country, Bulgaria. "Next year, the UK minimum wage will be £11.44 per hour. The sales prices haven’t gone up, so logically, there shouldn’t be a soft fruit grower left in the UK. But we’re still here, and are even pretty optimistic," Salih, now the Chief Operating Officer of WB Chambers, shared during the Soft Fruit Congress in Rotterdam last Tuesday.
As one of the largest soft fruit companies in the UK, boasting over 350 hectares of production land, WB Chambers employs around 1700 people during the picking season—most of whom hail from countries other than the UK. “It’s not just the pickers: our company is built on workers like me. Most people, unless in finance, administration, or commerce, originate from different countries," says Salih, adding that approximately 350 of the 1000 inhabitants of his own former home village currently work for WB Chambers.
Looking back on his early days in the UK, Salih admits that he initially held a romanticized view of the work. “I imagined I would be going to a little farm, work in a lively field, with a lot of sun and smiling people. But when arriving in the UK, that image disappeared rapidly: we woke up early, worked long hours, and it was hard.” Despite the initial shock, Salih appreciates the opportunities the experience provided, especially considering his background under communism.
Today, the work remains demanding, but improvements have been made. Salih notes enhanced information dissemination, better training, and more prepared management for new workers, adding improvement of this also became a necessity as the workers are the backbone of the company. "Pickers are seen as low-skilled workers, but who can harvest 22 to 30 kg per hour during 2 to 3 months per year? That’s what’s required to make us sustainable as a company – and that’s not low-skill labor. It might not be academic labor, but it is still high-skill labor," Salih emphasized.
Acknowledging the value of experienced workers, he insists that treating employees well is essential for the sustainability of farm businesses. “Treating people good is a necessity for farm businesses especially when returnees are 25-30 % more productive than the newcomers. We continue to improve our accommodation standards, and ensure workers are treated fairly, otherwise they will not stay.”
Showcase positive practices
When asked if Brexit intensified these challenges, Salih shares a nuanced perspective, asserting that labor issues are global, not confined to Brexit-related concerns. "It might be a controversial vision, but I don’t think the labor problem is a Brexit-only problem," Salih says. “There’s labor problems everywhere: Spain, Morocco, Peru. Even in Bulgaria we do not have Bulgarian people working on the farms. After 22 years of working in the industry in the UK, my own two children do not want to work on the farm. We are not good at selling the farm work as a career to people, and finding enthusiastic people is hard without the right PR, Brexit or not.”
Despite being occasionally associated with exploitation scandals, Salih urges the soft fruit industry to showcase its positive practices and opportunities for workers, as a lot of good work is being done. "As an industry, we offer opportunities for employee development; alongside the positive work in our workers being well treated and respected. That’s something we need to advertise more."
WB Chambers remains optimistic about growth despite high labor costs and recruitment challenges. “We’re a resilient industry, or maybe we’re stupidly optimistic,” Salih says, anticipating advancements in new varieties and growing systems as the key to the industry's future success. With 72 new varieties in trial, WB Chambers is committed to innovation. "In my opinion, the revolution in raspberries still has to happen," Salih asserts, focusing on factors like fruit size, ease of picking, longer seasons, and improved shelf life. Notably, he points out that raspberries, historically weighing 3.5 grams, now reach 10 grams, significantly enhancing speed and efficiency.
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