Revealing the results of its monthly grower survey for June, NFU horticulture adviser Amy Gray said that while the share of respondents experiencing a labour shortfall has dropped slightly — from 17% in May to 13% in June — "insufficient" has become growers’ most common evaluation of labour supply. "There has also been an almost linear reduction in returnees, to just 31% in June," she added. "They are an important source of labour, being experienced and reliable."
Attrition, by contrast, has been higher than in previous seasons, with the share of workers not turning up, not staying or being fired standing at 18%, compared with 10% in 2014, which Gray described as "worrying", adding: "Workers don’t communicate their reasons for leaving."
She concluded: "The survey also shows that investment confidence is down, with some already deciding not to plant. We are at a crossroads. It’s not something we have been through before."
UK commercial horticulture requires 80,000 seasonal and 10,000 permanent workers each year. NFU figures show the industry’s overwhelming reliance on Eastern Europeans to fill these positions, with 71% of seasonal workers coming from Romania and Bulgaria, 28% from the earlier EU accession states of central and Eastern Europe, and barely 0.1% — one in a thousand — from the UK.
Hops Labour Solutions recruitment manager Sarah Boparan says her company has signed up 100 UK nationals on a seasonal employment scheme but ultimately only one stays the entire course.
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of fellow agricultural recruiter Concordia, says: "The picture on returnees is very different from company to company. There are geographical differences too, with workers saying they don’t want to go to Scotland given the journey and the weather.
"The quality has changed. They are more rural and less well-educated. We survey workers including those who don’t come. All else being equal, they prefer the UK because they know they will be treated fairly. But there is the extra cost of travel."
She adds: "One grower I know of has invested in facilities and offers five days’ work, not six. It’s the amenities that draw people back, but that won’t go all the way to meeting growers’ needs."
Besides the ongoing weakness of the pound, a strong home labour market is also impacting on recruitment from source countries. EU statistics for May show the unemployment rate in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria at 4.8, 5.4 and 6.0% respectively, all well below the EU average of 7.8%.
British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins says: "Given the weakness of the pound relative to the euro, the one thing that might be needed to encourage them to come and work on British farms is higher wages."
Warning that "one of our key factors of production remains unknown", he adds that evidence of growers opting not to invest due to such uncertainty is as important in negotiations with Government as stories of unpicked crops. He told growers: "Please let us know of any examples of this. We need facts, not emotions." A straw poll of growers at the debate showed around 10 are indeed considering reducing investment.
Olins suggests that the Government should initiate "some sort of [seasonal labour] scheme by February next year" because it would take five or six months to set up — in time to begin recruitment for the 2019 season. "That’s the litmus test," he says.
Maurel agrees. "We don’t expect it to get better next summer," she adds. "Already the numbers through agency doors are down, as is the quality."
Chairing the debate, NFU chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said: "The Government recognise the value of horticulture to the economy but are putting off a decision until they are further ahead in Brexit negotiations. But the timelines are increasingly worrying."
Farming minister George Eustice, himself a former soft-fruit grower in Cornwall, said at the show: "I employed 250 people — I get it. We are working hard to ensure some sort of short-term scheme is in place. There will be free movement for a further two years. Some employers have told me they still have no difficulty recruiting labour from Bulgaria."
Viewpoint: James Porter, Angus Soft Fruits grower and chairman of the NFU Scotland specialist crops committee
"There is a big variation in shortages across different farms, but I don't think this is down to geography. Scotland may be further away but we are worth coming the extra miles for. The distance certainly hasn't hindered recruitment up to now, perhaps because the numbers needed here are not as high as in England. In fact, shortages in England this year seem to be higher than they are in Scotland, with an estimated five-10% shortage here as opposed to 17% in England.
"I think that most of the shortages are due to some agencies being unable to fulfil their contracts due to a lack of workers coming forward. Growers who have recruited a large proportion of their own staff have tended on the whole to have fewer shortages. However, the overall trend is extremely worrying and NFUS and Angus Soft Fruits both fully support the NFU’s and British Summer Fruits’ call for a seasonal worker scheme to be in place for next year."