person picking green cabbage

Encouraging ethical entrepreneurialism

Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, will be part of a panel about ‘encouraging ethical entrepreneurialism’ at our upcoming conference on 21 November in London. Concordia is leading the way ethically in terms of overseas recruitment and is one of the only two operators awarded a Government contract to recruit from outside the EU this year. 

Speaker graphic - Stephanie Maurel

Brexit! No one wants to start a blog with that as the opening word, however, this was make or break for our charity.

Concordia was born in 1943 and worked to bring labour to farms across the UK to help with the harvest. We recruited French soldiers to mix with and work alongside British workers with the goal of bringing peace through cultural exchange and understanding. Today we continue this cultural exchange through international volunteering and we still recruit labour for British farms from abroad.

Concordia believes that volunteering changes lives and fosters world citizens who care about each other and the world. We are a self-funded charity with a strong commercial operation which covers the charity’s overheads.

The charity income is generated through the recruitment of labour for farms and until December 2018 all this labour came from Eastern Europe. Now we circle back to Brexit. The vote to leave the European union suddenly made the UK a less attractive destination for Eastern European workers. The strength of the pound dropped, Europeans worried about not being welcomed, confusion arose over the need for a visa and ultimately with the strong growth in Eastern European economies, workers voted with their feet and stayed in their country or went to Germany or the Netherlands to work in a country with the Euro.

Concordia brings in c 10,000 workers every year, and they stay on average for 5 months. The agricultural sector needs to fill about 90,000 roles annually and every year since the Brexit vote, the sector has been short 13% – a huge 10,000 harvest jobs unfilled on farms.  So, whilst we have continued demand for workers, the supply is getting more and more difficult. The charity was losing money as we couldn’t find enough workers to fulfil our requests for staff from farms.

We are the only charity working in this sector as a labour provider and we have a strong ethical reputation.  Before making any change, we went out to talk to almost all our 200 farms about why they choose to get their labour from us and what it is that they want and need. The fact that we were a charity came out strongly, as did a wish to make sure that the worker was protected from labour abuse in all its guises. We made this central to our planning and worked with the Home Office Modern Slavery team as well as the agricultural trade bodies to define what would make us world-class in terms of worker protection. Behind the scenes, a lot of hard work and financial modelling went into how much each of the ideas would cost Concordia to put into place as well as what elasticity we thought existed in the prices we could charge for organising labour.

We changed our supply chain and the process of recruitment with a guarantee that no worker would pay anything but their travel to the UK. All workers are given free travel insurance that includes a generous medical and dental package. Every worker and every farm has access to a 24/7 helpline in their first language (English, Romanian, Bulgarian or Lithuanian) and we have strengthened our pastoral fund. This is a fund which we use to cover the costs of things not covered by the insurance (a flight home for a funeral or a taxi if there is no public transport after a plane is delayed) as well as using the fund to support farms who want to put something on culturally for their workers – we have funded BBQs, picnics, football kits and trips to London, Cambridge and of course Alton Towers!

All these changes came at a financial cost, and to cover our costs we had to quadruple prices. With my Head of Operations, we went across the UK once more and visited almost all our farms to talk them through the changes and explain the benefits to them. The team called all the farms we simply couldn’t get to face to face and we created a brochure to explain the change.

Almost all our farm customers have stayed with us through this major change and we have strengthened our reputation in the sector but also with the Government.

Major sector lobbying saw a pilot scheme to recruit labour outside the UK launched at the back end of 2018 to help find more labour for UK farms. This is the only scheme that has been introduced since Brexit for any sector and we responded to the tender. Only two operators were awarded a licence to recruit non-EU workers and bring them into the UK and Concordia was once of them. This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t changed our tack and our model. With the support of a great team, with Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan workers alongside EU workers, we are looking to a brighter future.

Photo by PHÚC LONG on Unsplash (person picking green cabbage)

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