I glanced covertly through the leaves at the pickers on the other side of my apple tree and stifled a groan. I ought to count myself lucky I thought. At least we managed to find workers in the village, without having to resort to the local job centre. A neighbouring farmer had ended up employing “gypsies from Alsace”, after having no luck finding pickers in the surrounding area.
The same people came back to us year after year. The retired neighbour with the pendulous belly and the working mums who fitted in a few hours of picking around part-time jobs and kids. They all did their best I supposed and they were a happy bunch; but bonhomie alone didn’t get the apples into the bins and speed didn’t seem to be a quality that the French were well acquainted with.
Spaniards would work quicker I considered. Many of the larger fruit producers employed either them or the Portuguese, but we had nowhere to lodge them and anyway they wouldn’t come for just a week’s work. Our workers would be fine, I thought, if only they would pick a bit faster, but nothing I said could persuade them to notch up the speed. By introducing coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon, we had hoped to inject energy into the team. But it was hot and they were sweating and I knew that even a hit of caffeine and a biscuit wouldn’t suffice to increase productivity.
I tried not to think about what it was going to cost us in wages and taxes. The pickers were paid by the hour and whatever wage we paid them we would have to pay again to the French state. This was to cover such things as social security, which didn’t bother, me and unemployment benefits, which did. If the millions of French unemployed had less benefits they would be more willing to work. If they worked, we would have more choice of pickers, and speed rather than availability could become a prerequisite. We would finish sooner and it would cost us less. Or so went my train of thought, which seemed to run in a never-ending loop.
I gritted my teeth as the woman opposite me picked an apple. She turned it over in her hand as though pondering it, placed it gently in the box and slowly stretched her arm out to take another.