‘My candid experiences of hiring grape pickers in France’

Vigneron Jonathan Hesford shares surprising stories of slackers, spliffs and gendarmes at his vineyard harvest

Despite the problems, hand-pickers are better than machines says vigneron Jonathan Hesford who makes wine in Roussillon

Hand-harvesting grapes has several quality advantages over machine harvesting.

Firstly, pickers can reject mouldy and rotten bunches.

Secondly, machines collect a lot of things as well as grapes – leaves, insects, snails, tall weeds etc.

Thirdly, machines break the fruit in the vineyard, meaning that the juice and crushed fruit are exposed to the air and heat before reaching the winery.

However, employing and relying on humans to pick grapes is not all plain sailing. Here are some of my candid experiences from the last 16 years of hiring pickers.

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Employment administration is online now but still strict

Anyone who has had to employ people in France will know that the rules and regulations here are burdensome.

The state enforces official work contracts, pay-slips and social contribution declarations.

Vignerons and agricultural workers come under a separate ‘caisse sociale’ from other industries.

We are all bound to the Mutualité Sociale Agricole (MSA) who receive our social contributions and handle our healthcare, family benefits and pensions.

Harvest workers must be hired under a short-term work contract known as the Tesa.

Up until about 10 years ago, this was a paper document that had to be printed, scanned and emailed to the MSA before the employee started work. Fortunately the system is now online but the rules are no less strict.

We turn away pickers who want to work undeclared

Many pickers want to work on the black to avoid paying social contributions and taxes or losing their unemployment benefit.

Because the employer’s share of the social contributions is significant, some vignerons were happy to do this, even at the risk of prosecution.

Every year I have to turn away pickers who only want to work undeclared.

We can only hire pickers who have the right to work in France. Fortunately, EU citizenship means this covers a lot of people but I have still had requests from non-Europeans holding Spanish work permits, which are not valid in France.

I’ve had several dubious applicants who have ‘lost’ their identity cards or have tried to use ones belonging to other people.

Advertising for pickers is tricky

Finding good pickers isn’t easy. We’ve used notices in the local boulangerie, Facebook groups, employment agencies and the official Pole Emploi. All have their problems.

One year I made the mistake of including my phone number on the local Facebook page and was inundated with calls for weeks after I’d removed it because people had shared it or sent it to friends all over France and Spain.

I was phoned by the police one evening about a worker suspected of falsifying their carte d’identité.

The next morning about eight gendarmes arrived and handcuffed her to my front gates.

I was asked how I had hired this person, ironically she and her partner were the only two to have been sent to us by Le Pole Emploi!

If I hire people too early, they will find other work before harvest starts and not tell me. If I wait too long, I’m left with those everyone else has rejected.

Even if I think I’ve got a good team, some won’t turn up on day one, some won’t be able to find the winery and some will be late.

Others will arrive with two ‘cousins’ in the car who want to work (preferably on the black).

Read more: When is the right time for grape picking in France?

The ground rules for pickers

I consider myself a nice and fair employer but I give them a set of basic rules.

No alcohol, no drugs, no smoking while picking. Hold the bunch underneath, not where you are making the cut. The rules have all been broken.

The first year one girl cut her finger so deeply in the first hour that she fainted and had to be signed off work for the rest of the harvest.

She came for her tiny pay-packet with a brand new Gucci handbag, perhaps bought with the sickness payments.

One guy turned up on his birthday with a bottle of fortified wine that he intended to drink throughout the morning.

Another didn’t think that I could smell the joints he kept smoking when he was out of my sight.

There are ‘rotten eggs’ every year

Grape-picking isn’t regular work. We have to wait until each vineyard is ripe. We can’t work in the rain. We only work mornings because of the heat.

All these things are explained and agreed but they do cause understandable problems.

Most of my pickers have been hard-working and good company but almost every year we have a few rotten eggs.

Some don’t turn up on the picking days and give excuses involving car problems, family incidents, one-day illnesses, alarms not working, not understanding what ‘demain’ means or just tired.

Some are disruptive, either arguing with the other pickers or with me or (more often) my wife.

Some are stupid, not understanding basic instructions or wanting to do things their way, giving me suggestions on how to harvest my vineyard.

The many ways to avoid work

Some are slackers, trying to do less work than the rest of the team or dragging out the time it takes to pick the vineyard.

They like to spend time looking at every bunch, asking me if it fulfils the quality check if I’m within earshot, or picking off a couple of dried grapes from the bunch before slowly placing it in the bucket if I’m not.

Checking vines that others have already picked. Going to get their water-bottle that they left in their car.

Stopping every two minutes for a stretch, a chat or just to look at the others working.

The reason they give for always being 10 metres behind is because there were more grapes in their row.

My pickers are local firemen, builders and cashiers

Visitors to my winery ask me who picks our grapes. They assume they are students, Eastern Europeans, Portuguese or ‘Woofers’. They are not.

They are predominantly French nationals, live locally and do other jobs at other times of the year.

We’ve had firemen, retired nurses, builders, salesmen, supermarket cashiers and film directors but mainly they are agricultural workers who move with the crops.

They pick cherries, apricots, peaches and grapes, prune trees and vines, collect salads and pack apples.

Despite the problems, incidents and funny stories, I would much rather spend harvest with these people than watching a machine unload grapes into a trailer.

Picking grapes with a diverse team is the most rewarding part of the job.

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