FARMERS STRUGGLING TO FIND SEASONAL WORKERS
“We need reassurance that we will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce”
Long before Brexit kicks in, one of its potential impacts was felt in our fields and orchards this year during the harvest. The number of migrant seasonal workers from countries such as Romania, Poland and Bulgaria who pick and pack fruit and veg dropped by between 13% and 17% and, in some places, crops rotted in the fields.
The seasonal workforce is around 80,000 and some of the absentees had been coming here for years – they knew the ropes and for a few months played a vital role in Britain’s agricultural well-being before going home a little better off.
“This season they didn’t make the journey and I’m really worried about what will happen next year,” says Ali Capper, chairman of the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board. “I’m not seeing anything that makes me feel positive. On my farm we have 25 Polish workers and this season three of them let us down. Across the country, it has meant that those who did turn up had to work harder and longer and even then some crops were going to waste.”
She says several things have caused the downturn in labour. “The economies are improving in their own countries, the weak pound has affected their wages so Germany, France and Belgium are more attractive and closer, and because the xenophobic attitude in some sections of the media filtered down to them at home, they felt there might be hostility towards them,” she said.
The Government has asked its agricultural advisory committee to look into the situation and report back by September next year but the NFU is urging for an interim report to be published by Christmas. “Next autumn will be too late for our industry,” Capper tells me. “We need reassurance now that we will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce in the future.”
One answer, say many farmers, is to bring back the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which operated from 1948 until 2013 and granted permits of up to six months to people from within the EU, but also from countries such as Russia and Ukraine, who had guaranteed jobs on British farms.
The organisation Migration Watch argues that instead of reintroducing SAWS the Government should “bolster efforts to encourage Britons into such jobs” by raising wages and improving working conditions. The industry, it adds, should invest in technological change to increase productivity.
But others say this won’t solve the problem. “Let’s face it – British workers want full-time, not seasonal, jobs and in midWorcestershire, for example, there are only about 550 jobless and we need 800 workers. It’s becoming nail-biting,” says Derek Wilkinson, managing director of a farming group that grows salad crops and vegetables and employs 2,500 seasonal workers across the UK. “By the end of the season, we were around 150 people down and just managed to get through, partly because demand was down.
“All the time we are working towards more automation but we have not yet got that driverless machine that will pick a field of spring onions and put them into nice bunches. We are a long way from doing everything with robots – many crops are fragile and difficult to handle. We will always need people – but where will we get them from?”
Migrant seasonal workers have long been key to a fruitful harvest. A drop in seasonal migration has farmers worried