UK fruit and vegetable growers have warned time is running short to recruit overseas workers for next year’s harvest as they await news of a government scheme to bring in seasonal labour after the end of free movement with the EU.
Growers and trade groups said crops would go unharvested if a pilot seasonal workers’ scheme was not expanded significantly. They want it to admit about 70,000 temporary workers, roughly the number who have been travelling to the UK in recent years, mainly from eastern Europe.
Some growers have reduced planting for next year in the absence of certainty, while one international group is preparing to shift some production to Senegal.
Ministers have said they are working on a new scheme to admit workers after free movement from the EU ends on December 31 but have not confirmed details. Growers would normally be recruiting now for next year.
“It’s beyond urgent. We are over the other end of the precipice on this,” said Ali Capper, who chairs English Apples and Pears, a trade group.
“The anxiety levels are the highest I’ve ever known them. I’m actually quite worried about some people, because if you’ve got no labour you’ve got no crop and if you’ve got no crop you’ve got no business.”
Growers fear ministers will in effect cut the number of overseas workers admitted in an attempt to provide work for locals.
George Eustice, environment secretary, said this month that “with the corona situation and the fallout from that we are likely to see some sharp rises in unemployment . . . we are also conscious that a lot of these people don’t live in the right areas. But we want to challenge growers to make sure they do make use of that local labour.”
Farms launched a recruitment drive for UK workers in 2020 after coronavirus disrupted international travel. They said the drive was expensive and met with mixed success. UK residents eventually made up 11 per cent of the harvesting workforce, according to the National Farmers’ Union.
As well as struggling to find people based near them, farmers said Britons preferred permanent jobs and were ill-prepared for tough physical labour.
Tom Bradshaw, NFU vice-president, said: “What we’re asking of [UK workers] is huge. In reality it means people needing to work in very rural areas, away from their homes and families, where they will only have guaranteed work for between three and six months.”
Derek Wilkinson, managing director of Sandfields Farms, part of the G’s Fresh group — one of the largest fresh produce groups in Europe — said G’s would move up to half of its spring onion production to Senegal if there was no further news on a seasonal workers’ scheme.
“If we don’t hear anything in the next month we are going to start planning for some production overseas,” he said. “If there are not enough people to harvest and we can’t find enough UK residents, there will be crops unharvested next year.”
Ms Capper, who chairs the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board, said one organic vegetable grower had cut production from 400 to 150 hectares for next year and others were scaling back.
Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, an industry body, said only 28 per cent of UK workers recruited by fruit growers in 2020 stayed for more than six weeks. “That’s a very high level of churn. That’s unsustainable,” he said.
A government spokesperson said: “Now the UK has left the EU, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working closely with the Home Office and other government departments to ensure that there is a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce.”
The seasonal workers’ pilot scheme admitted 10,000 workers in 2020, many from Ukraine, after being expanded from 2,500 the year before — but free movement from the EU accounted for most seasonal workers, many from Romania and Bulgaria.
The UK competes with other European countries for migrant labour. Alex Newey, co-owner of several horticulture farms and recruiter Pro Force, said a weak pound was pushing workers towards Germany and the Netherlands over Britain.
Workers from Europe can return to the UK if they have pre-settled status, but this requires them to have been present in the country in the past 12 months.