Securing sufficient labour through 2021 and beyond was the keynote seminar at the Fruit Focus event at East Malling in Kent.
With recruitment more challenging than ever, NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper and Simon Bower from Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) operator Concordia spoke on what is being done to mitigate issues in 2021 and to secure long-term solutions.
Capper said there are "appalling statistics" to share. June saw a 20% shortfall in labour, with a 10% year-to-date shortage. Daffodils had a 33% shortage and 24% crop loss — 245 million stems.
The average hourly wage of £10.35 is not the problem, she insisted. Some 36% of businesses lost crops. Only 9% of the workforce are UK nationals.
The NFU is starting to hear about businesses giving up and the sector is "on the brink of disaster if we don't sort this situation out". Some growers will move production offshore or reduce output, Capper warned, adding that Defra needs to make moves soon.
The appointment of AG and Fruitful this April/May to add to Proforce and Concordia as SWP operators was too late, she said. This may be the first year the sector has not seen growth. The Government will only act if supermarket shelves are empty, not if there are lost crops or business failures.
Capper said the 30,000-place SWP needs to be permanent, year-round, with more operators and permits. The system also needs to be "slicker" and ornamentals need to be included. UK immigration policy is "not fit for purpose". A report is going into Defra in August on the impact of staff shortages on the food and drink sector.
Bower said £245 visa costs are too high (plus £55 for Bulgaria and Romania). Without this year's 30,000 licences UK farmers would be in trouble, he added, but Concordia's licences ran out last week ahead of peak season, though workers now in the UK can be moved around.
Local Department for Work & Pensions representative Keith Johnson said job centres can help growers find UK workers.
#Migrant workers arriving in Northern Ireland via the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme are now exempt from NI Covid-19 related travel restrictions.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said: “I am pleased to announce that exemptions from certain Covid-19 regulations have been put in place for seasonal agricultural workers arriving in NI to work on edible horticulture farms. Access to seasonal workers is essential to the continued viability of the edible horticulture sector and given the relatively short timeframe of the visas, these exemptions will ensure that there is no time wasted when workers arrive here, and farms can benefit from the extra labour immediately.
“It is critical that we all continue to follow the Covid regulations, as put in place by the Department of Health. The amendments to the regulations for seasonal agricultural workers mean that workers will be able to avail of an exemption from self-isolation while working if they undertake Lateral Flow Device tests on days two, five and eight following arrival.”