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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

British farmers fear crop loss as EU workers dwindle

Seasonal pickers coming from other EU countries to work on UK farms down by 17 per cent

TN Brexit Farm labour Seasonal workers at Wyevale Nurseries Ledbury. 

Credit: National Farmers Union
TN Brexit Farm labour Seasonal workers at Wyevale Nurseries Ledbury. Credit: National Farmers Union

“We have worked with job centres and with ex-prisoners, but British people don’t want to do these jobs,” says David Kay, of Hall Hunter Partnership, a family-run fruit growing business located in Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex, in southern England.

It employs around 3,000 seasonal labourers from 20 different countries, and has trouble finding UK workers to help to pick its strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. The firm is not alone.

The UK’s fruit and vegetable farmers are struggling to find workers to pick this year’s harvest. The number of seasonal pickers coming from other European Union countries to work on UK farms dropped by 17 per cent this year, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). There were 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone, with farmers struggling to recruit and fewer workers returning.

Farmers rely on about 80,000 seasonal pickers, most from eastern European countries including Bulgaria and Romania. Just 14 of the 13,400 workers recruited between January and May were British, according to the NFU.

The declining value of the pound, negative perceptions about the UK following the vote to leave the EU, and the government’s lack of clarity about EU migrants’ status, are key factors in the dramatic shortfall, says the NFU.

UK fruit and vegetable growers now have to work about 30 per cent harder to source seasonal workers, says Jack Ward, the chief executive of the British Growers Association, which represents UK vegetable and salad growers.

“Three years ago it was relatively easy to recruit, people would turn up. Now you have to spend much more time and effort, the quality is generally lower, the number of returning workers is lower. You have to start from scratch each season and it adds an unexpected administrative burden.”

Mr Ward is concerned about the impact on industry confidence. “If labour supply is more difficult, there’s an impact on investment. There’s no point in planting 200 acres of apples if you don’t have people to pick all 200 acres of them. People are putting investment on hold, it’s not good for the industry.”

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It is not that farmers are not trying to recruit British pickers, or that British workers are not prepared to take on this sort of intensive, low-wage work, he says, it is a simple numbers game.

“Look at the statistics on employment,” Mr Ward says, citing the latest figures published by the office of national statistics. “There are 32 million people in work between the ages of 16 and 64. We’ve got the highest level of employment since 1971, when records began. There are currently about 1.49 million looking for jobs and 770,000 unfilled vacancies. When you crunch those statistics there aren’t that many people who are looking for jobs. Are the people looking for jobs in the right areas? No.”

Many soft-fruit farms are in the south-east of England, which has one of the highest areas of employment; others are in areas including East Anglia and Lincolnshire further north, which are sparsely populated. “There just aren’t the number of people in areas where the product is grown.”

Some businesses will have to shift to less labour-dependent produce but there are some industries that involve a high degree of manual intervention which are at risk, says Mr Ward.

Laurence Olins, the chairman of British Summer Fruits, the industry body that accounts for 97 per cent of berries supplied to UK supermarkets, echoes that sentiment.“Many producers are warning this is as extreme as it gets,” he says. “If we do not have pickers, we do not have a soft-fruit industry.”

The £1.2 billion (Dh5.73bn) soft-fruit industry employs around 29,000 seasonal workers a year, with around 95 per cent of them coming from the EU outside the UK. An independent report commissioned by BSF on the implications of Brexit predicts demand will rise to around 31,000 by 2020 if the industry continues to grow.

“But if seasonal workers are not found for these jobs, we could see fruit being left unpicked in fields or growers moving their operations to countries with a ready supply of labour,” says Mr Olins.

“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry,” says Mr Olins. “But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit - along with soaring prices, an increased reliance on imports and the environmental impact of additional food-miles.”

The BSF predicts the price of strawberries and raspberries will soar by up to 50 per cent because of Brexit; it is just one consequence for the UK food industry, where EU workers are crucial throughout the food chain, not just picking, processing and packing fruit and vegetables, but working in the livestock, poultry and cereal industries, and more.

Mr Ward is also shocked by the government’s failure to clarify post-Brexit EU immigration plans. “The home secretary has only just commissioned a migration advisory,” he says of the government’s planned report into the value of immigration. “We’ve had two years of lack of answers. Businesses can’t wait that long, they need certainty.”

The farming industry wants an immigration policy that gives it access to the workforce it needs. “It is crucial that the government addresses these concerns immediately to ensure that farming has access to a competent and reliable workforce, now and post-Brexit,” says the NFU president Meurig Raymond, who wants the government to recognise the importance of migration to the UK farming industry, which is worth £109bn to the economy.

“A solution, such as a suite of visa or permit schemes, is urgently needed to avoid losing a critical number of workers that could jeopardise future harvests and food production.

"Recruiting overseas workers is not something that can be done instantly. It takes time for businesses to recruit and for seasonal work they typically plan nine months in advance," he says.

"The supply of seasonal workers for the 2018 and 2019 seasons is already in danger and government must, as a priority, establish a system to enable sufficient recruitment of seasonal labour before the UK leaves the EU.”