What can be done to stave off labour shortages in fresh produce?

With a seasonal labour shortfall starting to take its toll in production horticulture, and some crops already being left unpicked, growers' representatives say clarity from the Government on migrant labour is now essential.

Image: New York Apple Country (CC BY 2.0)
Image: New York Apple Country (CC BY 2.0)

The NFU this week published the latest of its "Vision for the Future of Farming" series of briefings, titled Access to a Competent & Flexible Workforce. This warns: "The supply of seasonal workers for 2018 and 2019 seasons is now in jeopardy. The government must, as a matter of urgency, establish a system that will continue to allow sufficient overseas workers to take up seasonal jobs in the UK to stop this from happening."

Its own research has found that the number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms has dropped by 17%, "leaving some farms critically short of people to harvest fruit and vegetables". Meanwhile, the proportion of returnees to farms "has also dropped significantly throughout the first five months of the year, from 65% to 33%".

Reasons for seasonal worker shortage:

  • Lower unemployment and better welfare benefits in home countries.
  • Weak pound.
  • Preference for more desirable jobs.
  • Brexit.
  • Lack of clarity over UK's relationship with EU.

Reasons it gives for this include falling unemployment and improved welfare benefits back home, the weakness of sterling, and workers’ preference for more desirable, permanent jobs, while "Brexit and the current lack of clarity over the UK’s future relationship with the EU have accelerated this trend".

NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper, who has pursued this issue with the Government for many months, tells Horticulture Week: "It’s hard to state calmly how urgent this is for the industry."

She explains: "We are waiting since the end of last year for the Immigration Bill, which we hope will not just bring clarity for EU nationals already working here but also lay out how we can recruit from inside the EU and outside it in future.

"We want a suite of options that are low-cost and simple to apply. But we are running out of time and it takes time to implement anything. We will definitely need something in trial next year, ready for 2019. We are planning on three- to five-year cycles but the Government is being much more short-term."

"It’s not just our sector but any sector that relies on migrant labour. The Government doesn’t yet seem to get it, and that’s a travesty. This period of change provides a huge opportunity to invest and to increase British production, but the Government isn’t grabbing it.

"The industry is not scared to make that investment but we need a legislative framework to enable it — and the alternative is a risk of price inflation, given the unpredictable exchange rates, which the retailers are well aware of."

Indeed, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents all the major supermarkets, says it has been campaigning for the rights of EU nationals currently in the UK to be confirmed since the referendum outcome last year. The UK retail industry itself employs around 120,000 EU nationals.

According to BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson: "The UK’s post-Brexit labour and immigration policy should be framed to enable domestic firms, including retailers themselves, to access the skills they need. Not only would this help our exporters but it will help retailers keep prices low for British consumers."

She adds: "Maintaining a tariff-free trading relationship with the EU is necessary to retain access to EU and non-EU seasonal and permanent labour."

On the current season so far, Capper says: "There have been labour shortages. During the soft-fruit flush last month, growers were struggling and some fruit has been left unpicked. It also costs more to harvest as you end up paying more overtime to the staff you have, and those are costs you can’t just pass on."

British Independent Fruit Growers' Association (BIFGA) vice-chair Clive Edmed confirms this. "We now have quite a serious shortage of labour, not just in picking but also in packing and all sorts of other jobs," he says. "It’s very concerning to growers."

As the owner of Hayle Farm in Kent that grows a range of fruit as well as hops, he says there are wider shifts beyond Brexit that are serving to constrain seasonal labour supply. "English labour hasn’t been available for some time so in the past we’ve used SAWS, which brought in students from as far away as India and Africa. We’ve had workers from Portugal, then Poland and now Romania and Bulgaria.

"We could rely on word of mouth to bring more people over. But as each country has got more affluent, the supply has gone down. These societies are also changing and there isn’t quite the same work ethic. Then you have the weakness of the pound, which means they can get work in Germany, Belgium or Holland at a better rate for them. So we aren’t getting the extra people who haven’t been before.

"We treat them well and even provide computers, but with email and mobile phones they are in contact with friends back home, working in other countries or elsewhere in the UK. They know what else is on offer, so we are having to pay them more to keep them here. With a stronger pound they would be more willing to come."

In a letter this week to the prime minister and departmental heads, BIFGA chair John Breach wrote: "It is essential that sufficient visas or exemptions are made available to enable seasonal work on farms to be carried out efficiently and without loss of crops."

Edmed adds: "Workers who are considering coming, and who are here already, say they haven’t got the confidence that our Government will allow them to stay. They hear on the news at home that Britain doesn’t want them to come. We need a positive message from Government that will filter back."

As to automation as a means to reduce growers’ labour requirements, he says: "It may come. But fruit like apples bruise easily. The supermarkets want quality fruit and that needs sensitive hands. We grow blackcurrants for fresh sale and even they have to be hand-picked, and that labour is 50% of the cost."

According to a Home Office representative: "We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our negotiations to leave the EU, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry, which is a key part of our nation’s economic success."

She points out that the Government intends to commission advice from the Migration Advisory Committee this year to clarify the role of EU migrant workers across the economy and "will also ensure that businesses and communities have the opportunity to contribute their views in shaping our future immigration system".

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