Is this the end of the farm traineeship?

We look at how the recent removal of the family member exemption might affect farms and trainees

Over the last decade, a growing number of new entrants – especially those interested in growing vegetables – have started their journey into farming by undertaking an unpaid traineeship. While the details vary between farms, in general, the trainee exchanges their labour for on-the-job learning, accommodation and a stipend of around £50-100 per week. Traineeships are usually seasonal, running from April to October, and accommodation is often in a temporary dwelling such as a caravan, or in the house with the farmers.

This model has become prevalent because of wider issues in the food and farming industry. New entrants face very limited opportunities to accessing training, especially in organic or agroecological growing or market gardening, where there are currently all too few training courses that provide in-depth, work-based learning. In turn, due to wider issues within the food industry – such as the unsustainably low prices paid for food and ingrained unfairness in the food system – many farms struggle to make enough money to pay minimum wage to themselves or their staff. 

It’s difficult to estimate how many people are part of such traineeships since these arrangements are often informal, but an informed guess suggests several hundred people take part in such traineeships each year in the UK. 

A fair exchange?

At its best, the model can represent a relationship that benefits both parties – the trainee receives in-depth on-the-job training without the upfront cost of paying for a course, and the farm receives much-needed low-cost labour on their farm. Ashley Wheeler from Trill Farm has been running traineeships for the past ten years, putting a lot of work into giving the best experience to trainees. “We have a structured traineeship that covers everything from crop planning, soil types, propagation, irrigation, rotations, planting all the way to harvest and sales, and we also run monthly evening sessions on more theoretical and business-related topics,” he explains. 

The lack of standardisation of traineeships means though that the experience can vary hugely from farm to farm. Trainee Robin worked for seven months on a farm in Devon, working six to seven hour days, four days a week and receiving accommodation, vegetables and a £60 a week stipend in exchange. “Generally, our learning and training was done in the field, through doing and asking questions as we went along,” he explains. “For me the traineeship was about living and experiencing agroecological farming; an opportunity to get a feel for whether it was something I wanted to apply myself to and in the process learn some of the basics to achieve this.“ When asked whether it felt like a fair exchange he responded; “Overall, yes. I had my basic needs met and more, but the caravan I lived in was in a bad state and beyond the basics, the stipend was not enough to live off, meaning I had to use my savings.”

We want to encourage the sector to think beyond green localism towards a more radical and equitable food and land justice movement Solidarity Across Land Trades (SALT)

Across the industry there has been recognition that the way traineeships are run needs to change. Solidarity Across Land Trades (SALT), a newly formed trade union that represents land workers explains: “Unpaid traineeships provide clear barriers to entry into the sector for people who cannot afford to work for below minimum wage, whilst leaving those who can vulnerable to potentially exploitative working conditions.” This exploitation can take different forms; working long hours, living in substandard conditions, receiving little training, no employment benefits such as sick or holiday pay, and having limited recourse to claim for workplace mistreatment. 

They continue; “Uncritically promoting unpaid traineeships undermines the movement’s commitment to transforming the food system; which is equally reliant on the use of underpaid, precarious labour. We want to encourage the sector to think beyond green localism towards a more radical and equitable food and land justice movement.”

Legal changes

Up until now, many traineeships have been operating under the assumption of a ‘family member exemption’ under the law that governs National Minimum Wage (NMW). This exemption means eligible workers do not have to be paid minimum wage if they are treated as part of the household and are, for example, provided with accommodation in exchange. Some – including SALT – dispute that this exemption ever applied to farmworkers.

However, from April 2024, this exemption has been completely removed and anyone receiving any in-kind benefits, such as training or accommodation, is no longer classed as a volunteer and must be paid the NMW at £11.44 an hour for those aged 21 and over in England (a different minimum wage for Agricultural workers may be applicable in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Accommodation costs can be taken out of this payment, but at a maximum of £9.99 a day, and while training costs can be deducted from wages, this only applies if the training is not considered mandatory for carrying out a task properly and safely. There is an exemption for Voluntary Workers who donate their time for a charity or voluntary organisation, who may receive accommodation and reimbursement of some expenses.

The potential consequence for farms not conforming to this legislation include facing fines from HMRC and having to back-pay NMW, holiday pay and employers NI contributions. 

The impact on UK farms

Farming organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) have been working to produce guidance for their members on the impact of this; “In the short-term, the changes in the law could be a big blow to farms that are running informal traineeships,” explains Ariana Chamberlain, the New Entrant Training Coordinator at the LWA. 

Many farms have had to review what they can offer to their trainees. “We previously paid our first year trainees for one day out of the four they worked each week, and going forwards we will not be able to afford paying the trainees the full minimum wage if they work 4 days a week,” Ashley explains. “This either means that we cannot provide training, or they would only be coming for 1-2 days a week, which does not give a full impression of market gardening.”

It’s not just traineeships that will be affected by these changes. Any farm offering volunteers in-kind benefits like food and accommodation, such as those participating in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) scheme, could theoreticallly face having to pay these volunteers as workers. However, Scarlett Penn from WWOOF UK explains “We believe the changes were not intended to affect WWOOF UK. WWOOFing offers an immersive educational experience. It is valuable and it is unique: visitors participate in our hosts’ lifestyles in order to learn about organic growing and sustainable living. It is not a formal or commercial relationship.”

What now?

Many organisations are seeing this as an opportunity to review how training is being offered. “These changes could provide an opportunity to change the direction of traineeships and make training more accessible for those that cannot afford to do an unpaid traineeship,” Ariana explains. “More than ever, the LWA sees the importance of focusing its efforts on developing accredited training and government apprenticeship schemes focused on agroecological growing to support both new entrants and farms that would like to deliver training, and we are working with a range of partners to try and increase this offer across the UK,” she continues. 

It’s clear though that a wider change is needed within our food system; for government investment in training provision for agroecological and organic farming, and a shift to a place where food is valued and farmers are supported to be in a financial position where they can pay appropriate wages to trainees. 

For more information on the changes and how this will affect farms, see the Landworkers’ Alliance website for guidance they have put together.


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