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How to Address the Minimum Farm Wage Challenge

Farmers who have identified an issue with paying below the minimum wage due to longer working hours could find solutions by thinking outside the box when it comes to staff.

“A lot of farmers have realised that they are now illegally paying below the minimum wage because staff are working long hours – but there are solutions to this problem,” says Paul Harris, CEO at staff specialist, REAL Success.

“The answer isn’t to ignore the problem and hope it will go away – the long hours are also putting off people from joining the industry.”

Part-time local staff

One option is to consider part-time local staff. “Farmers could employ more local staff who can cover one or two shifts a week, which allows the full-time staff to work for no more than five days before getting a couple of days off,” says Mr Harris.

Weekends can often be a challenge to cover. “By getting local people to potentially come and work the odd shift, maybe from outside of farming, then all you have to do is train them on the basics – they don’t have to be as trained as everyone else. This can work well with dairy farming, and training people how to milk.”

Also, employers should speak to their full-time staff to find out if they would like to change their shift patterns. “Some people might value more time off,  so ask them whether they would like to work fewer hours for less money. For example, instead of 10 days on with two days off for £32,000/year, give people the option of a few more days off for £30,000.  Some people might take a lower salary with more time off.”

Case study: Jack Elliott

One dairy farmer who has adopted this approach to staffing is Jack Elliott, at Hunshaw Farm near Little Torrington in North Devon. With 450 Holstein cows, he runs an intensive system, milking three times a day and calving all year round.

Most of his employees are on a salary, but to ensure he’s paying the correct amount he instigated a clocking in and out system. “Last year I had three people doing too many hours, so at the end of the year they had an extra payment, but it’s down to me to keep things fair for everyone – so I introduced an app which records everyone’s hours,” says Mr Elliott.

“I then have a spreadsheet where I put everyone’s hours in and record their salaries, to give me their weekly average hours and what impact it has on their salary, as well as making sure they’re not working too much.”

He would also rather have too much staffing than not enough. “The balance between not enough staff and too many staff isn’t much, I have a young family and I’m willing to sacrifice having more money, rather than jeopardise my own work-life balance.”

But he was finding it hard to recruit from within the agricultural industry, so he widened his search and now all his staff come from non-farming backgrounds. “Several people have moved back from London, who had been working as nurses, in mental health or IT,” he says.

“I give opportunities to the people I feel have the right reasons behind wanting to have a go at farming. None of them had ever touched a cow before they came to work for me.

“All I want is for people to turn up on time, be happy, bring good energy, be passionate and contribute to the team – none of that is qualification-based. Anyone who is local and wants an opportunity – I will always talk to them. I do advertise on Indeed, so some come through that.”

He offers people who are interested a trial day. “People are willing to give up their careers to start something new that they know nothing about – the worst case scenario is that they have some work experience and in the best case I offer them a job.

“You have to train people either way – whether they have experience or not. Often, people who have experience already have their way of doing things, but I want people to do it my way.”

The process has allowed him to build a solid and effective team. “You can’t be afraid to try new people; I always have a set of values that I want from my team, I set these out in the interview and they have to abide by them, he says.

“I’m not saying that what I do is the best way or the only way, but it’s what I believe in, and it shines through in the team I have built.”