Is there anything more ridiculous, when we have hundreds of thousands of workers sat idly at home to avoid spreading coronavirus, to be flying in fruit and vegetable-pickers from Eastern Europe? Yet that is exactly what is about to happen. Concordia, which supplies seasonal labour to UK farms from overseas, says it is looking to charter planes to bring in 10,000 workers from Bulgaria. Without them, it says, fruit and vegetables will have to be left to rot in the fields. Sure, there is nothing wrong with using migrant labour on British farms in normal times. Until a few weeks ago we had pretty well full employment; there were few Britons prepared to work in the field. But to do it now, when we are supposed to be reducing all but essential travel, and when we have large numbers of able workers laid up at home, many of them living within a few miles of farms which are desperate for workers?
Last week, environment secretary George Eustice called for a ‘land army’ of volunteers to help in the food industry during the crisis. But he is going to have his work cut out recruiting such an army so long as the government is paying workers 80 per cent of their normal salaries to sit at home and watch Netflix. The government’s scheme is far, far too generous – at least without putting any conditions on this money. Why is it not conditional on workers making themselves available to work in the fields or in ancillary healthcare roles? True, many have come forward to volunteer to support the NHS, but it shouldn’t have been left to volunteering.
Once you take into account tax, commuting and the cost of childcare, many workers are going to be better off sitting at home on 80 per cent of their normal earnings than they would be going out to work and earning 100 per cent. There is an incentive for many workers to push their employers to furlough them – and enjoy a three week, maybe three month, paid leave courtesy of the taxpayer. We have ended up shutting down far more of the economy than we needed to in order to maintain social distancing. Last Thursday, the clothing chain Next announced that it was closing down not just its shops (which it had to under government instruction) but also its warehouses – which are surely cavernous enough to make sure no worker need come within a couple of metres of another. The company said it had 'listened very carefully to its colleagues working in warehousing and distribution operations to fulfil online orders. It is clear that many increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate.'
I bet they would. But then I bet if you asked people, even at the best of times, what they would rather do – come to work and be paid or stay at home and be paid – they would take the latter option. Rishi Sunak has attracted much praise for his handling of the economic side of the crisis, but when the bill comes in I fear he will be asking himself: just why did I offer so many workers a free holiday at taxpayers’ expense and fail to leave them with an incentive to take up vital work?