Worries over shortages remain

Growers continue to remain concerned about labour shortages this year despite the recent increase in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) quota.

Although they welcomed December's announcement of a rise in the quota by 5,000 for this year, some fear political pressure could hamper the movement of overseas workers in the wake of the economic downturn and a rise in domestic unemployment.

John Boyd, who grows strawberries on 80ha in the New Forest, said the increase in the SAWS quota was good but the downturn could force the hand of MPs.

"We will have a lot more unemployment in the UK and the Government will come under pressure for being seen to offer work to overseas people when two million are jobless. Few unemployed people want to work on the land but internal political pressures will force the hand of MPs to make it harder for eastern Europeans to come here."

He added: "That's the danger our industry faces."

Clive Edmed, who uses Polish and Czech workers to pick apples and pears near Tonbridge, said upping the quota was good for an industry reliant on foreign workers.

"If they do away with SAWS, the only other hope is to change the unemployment benefit system to give people on the dole an earning amnesty for four weeks to pick."

He agreed with Boyd, however, that few Brits wanted to pick fruit and vegetables. Of the 120 staff Edmed uses on his 80ha, only four are from the UK.

Last year, Home Office minister Phil Woolas added 5,000 to the SAWS quota. It was cut from 25,000 to 16,000 in 2006, and the scheme is to be axed in 2010.

NFU horticulture board chairman Richard Hirst said: "We are working hard with other industry groups to ensure something very similar replaces SAWS. There's no reason why the Home Office couldn't abandon plans to drop the scheme. The Government now understands it is not about immigration, but employment. Without a workforce, (growers) can't plant and harvest crops."

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