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Top tips for managing seasonal workers for businesses in the agricultural sector

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Meeting the demands of a seasonal and labour-intensive rural business can often result in employee management becoming a low priority. Olivia Bailey and Kate Shawcross from our employment and regulatory team offer their five top tips to ensure that you adopt the best practices when employing seasonal workers.

Agricultural businesses often manage a large number of seasonal workers and casual labour during peak seasonal periods. These workers are often short-term employees recruited on a fairly informal basis. Their working relationship with employers may therefore be mainly based on trust and operate within a reasonably relaxed working environment.

However, where seasonal workers are engaged, issues can arise with more long-standing employees and relationships can quickly deteriorate due to changes to the mechanics of the business or a drop in the availability of work. If not managed properly, employee disputes can escalate to expensive and time-consuming employment tribunal proceedings.

In order to avoid potential issues and to help deal with matters as they arise, it’s useful to have contracts of employment and a staff handbook in place to manage these working relationships and to help meet the expectations of all parties.

Here are our top tips to help manage seasonal workers more effectively:

The role of an employment contract

The first matter to consider when recruiting seasonal workers is their employment status. Will they be employees, self-employed or casual workers?

The main difference is employees have far more legal rights than casual workers. In turn, casual workers may have greater legal rights than the self-employed.

An individual recruited to cover seasonal work may be taken on for a fixed period of time. A fixed-term contract is therefore recommended, that ends on a specific date or on completion of a particular project or activity.

Quite often, seasonal workers are engaged on a part-time basis to assist permanent staff. Employers should note that part-time workers should be treated with the same employee rights as their full-time counterparts.

Individuals working as seasonal workers may alternatively be recruited to work on zero-hours terms (with no guarantee of any work being offered) or under a contract that offers a guaranteed minimum number of hours only.

It is important for employers to ensure that the terms of employment for every scenario are clearly recorded in a contractual agreement with workers, so that the expectations from both parties are clear.

Formal arrangements for service occupancy

An employment contract can include accommodation clauses relating to service occupancies and licences to occupy, which occasionally arise in farming employment relationships. Service occupancies arise when it is essential for workers to reside at their employer’s properties to properly carry out their duties.

In these circumstances, the employee will have a personal licence including formal arrangements to occupy the property for the duration of their employment. These arrangements may prove vital to have recorded within a contract, when ending the employment relationship.

It is highly recommended to seek legal advice and put in place tailored contracts where workers are provided with accommodation, to ensure that as an employer, you are covered for a variety of different circumstances. The implications of getting it wrong can be extremely costly.

Considerations with Working Time Regulations

Given the nature of farm working and taking into account the seasonal variations of demand in this line of work, it can be helpful to ask employees to agree to opt out of the Working Time Regulations (WTR) 48-hour average maximum working week. This should run alongside any contract of employment that may be in place.

Employers should also note other provisions within the WTR, which includes a worker’s right to 20 minutes rest if working more than six hours per day, as well as 11 hours rest between shifts.

Furthermore, the WTR provides that all employees are entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks annual leave. Employers have a duty to ensure that such holidays can be taken, however, employers are able to control when they are taken.

It is therefore advisable to make it clear when employees are allowed holidays, taking into account seasonal peak periods, and to then set out provisions for requesting the annual leave. This will help to ensure that a fair system is in place, should it be necessary to refuse a holiday request.

The purpose of a staff handbook

A staff handbook incorporating disciplinary and grievance procedures can be invaluable when it comes to resolving workplace issues and potential conflicts, even where issues have been resolved informally in the past.

In addition, employers can create policies which set out clear guidance and/or expectations. These could range from, for example, instructions for using farm machinery and equipment,  first aid procedures, to manual handling and other health and safety guidance, and accident reporting procedures.

Formal policies allow both parties to understand the processes that must be followed to reach a swift resolution for any dispute. In the absence of a policy, it can be difficult for employers to know how to approach issues that require formal handling and employees may feel reluctant to engage if an ad hoc process is adopted.

If you would like further advice with regards to managing seasonal workers and preparing contracts of employment and staff handbooks; or to discuss our HR Compass fixed fee service, please contact Harrison Drury’s employment and regulatory team on 01772 258321.


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