The United Kingdom’s National Farmers Union, or NFU, warned the country’s agriculture sector could face major problems next year because of uncertainty over the supply of temporary foreign workers.
According to figures shown to the BBC, just 11 percent of seasonal workers employed in fruit picking are UK residents.
With the Brexit transition period finishing at the end of the year and so many workers currently coming from the European Union, the industry is worried about where they will find the workforce.
Earlier this year, the Pick for Britain campaign was launched to encourage British workers to get involved. But John Hardman of recruitment firm Hops Labour Solutions said that out of around 30,000 applicants, just 4 percent actually took up jobs, and only 1 percent continued after the first six weeks.
“It’s hard physical labor,” he said.”There is very little appetite in the domestic labor market for seasonal agricultural work because of the nature of the work. To be honest, EU citizens and those keen to work here are far more productive than the domestic labor force.
“We are suspending recruiting people from Romania and Bulgaria for 2021 purely based on uncertainty.”
At the time Pick for Britain was launched, Ali Capper, chair of the British Apples and Pears trade body, told the Guardian newspaper its “land army” image was outdated, unrealistic and unhelpful.
“That’s looking back at how things were through rose-tinted spectacles. Our businesses aren’t like that anymore,” she said.
“The rhetoric may bring forward large numbers of people but some only want to do the odd day here and there or don’t want to do the hours that are required. That’s very difficult for business.”
In February, just after Britain formally left the European Union but before the impact of the pandemic was widely known, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expanded its 2019 Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme, increasing the number of permitted temporary migrants for specific roles in horticulture, from 2,500 to 10,000 places for this year.
The farming industry wants government assurance over whether it will be in place for 2021.
“We are at a critical time in recruitment for many growers,” said NFU Vice-President Tom Bradshaw. “As freedom of movement ends on Dec 31, those growers of iconic British daffodils, asparagus, and soft fruits still don’t know where they will recruit experienced workers from.”