It was announced earlier this week that about 200 staff at a Herefordshire vegetable farm and packing business had been ordered into isolation on the property after 73 workers tested positive for Covid-19.
Not long after this news was reported, stories began to emerge about squalid working conditions on the farm prior to the outbreak. It was claimed, for example, that employees had to work in the farm’s packing house with no face coverings, limited personal protective equipment (PPE), and no social distancing, and that up to 60 workers were expected to share a single toilet.
Work on farms is intensive physical labour. It takes place outside in all weathers and often calls for early starts and late finishes.
And since the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, farm workers no longer have statutory protection for their pay and conditions. In most cases there is no sick pay, paid holidays or pension contributions.
Not only is agriculture a poorly paid sector for employees, it also has a poor health and safety record. The poor working conditions in the industry make domestic recruitment of farm workers a huge challenge. As we have seen in the case of the Herefordshire farm, they also make the rapid spread of a disease like COVID-19 much more likely.
Typically, farm work involves the harvesting, preparation and packaging of fresh foods destined in many cases for supermarket shelves. And as things stand, the labour-intensive process of sorting, washing, cutting and packing vegetables could not be done without migrant workers. Despite calls from the government during the Covid-19 lockdown for furloughed UK workers to volunteer to fill the gaps on farms created by lockdown in countries that traditionally supply these workers, take up was extremely low.
These labour shortages, which give us a glimpse of life post-Brexit, could threaten the UK’s internal food supply.
The Herefordshire farm coronavirus outbreak has shed light on two very serious problems that are about to hit us: the problem of recruiting sufficient workers to carry out agricultural work in the UK post-Brexit and the need to drastically improve working conditions and the standards of accommodation for all agricultural workers.
The dish has the added advantage that all the main ingredients can be cooked together in the same pan.
pasta with pesto, potatoes and French beans
400 g organic linguine or spaghetti
150 g organic new potatoes, washed and very thinly sliced
150 g organic French beans, topped and tailed
for the pesto
25 g fresh basil
20 g vegetarian or vegan Parmesan cheese
50 ml olive oil
20 g pine nuts
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1. Make the pesto sauce by putting the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan in a pestle and mortar, or a blender, and combining until you have a thick pesto sauce. Set to one side.
2. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Check the cooking time of the pasta before adding it to the pan. Eight minutes before the spaghetti should be cooked, add the potatoes. Three minutes later add the beans. At the end of the cooking time, strain the spaghetti, potatoes and beans into a colander. Some of the potatoes will have broken down but don’t worry, this is a rustic dish.
3. Tip the contents of the colander back into the pan. Add the pesto and stir. Serve immediately, accompanied by more Parmesan if required.