It is getting harder for Beverly Dixon to recruit the roughly 1,500 seasonal workers needed each year to harvest lettuce, radishes and onions on G’s Farms in the UK.
“In previous years, when we would recruit in Bulgaria and Romania, we would invite 300 people to an event and 600 would turn up,” said the human resources director for one of Britain’s largest growers of vegetables, with farms in East Anglia and the West Midlands. “Now we invite 600 people and 100 turn up, and those applying are less educated with lower levels of English.”
Like all UK growers, G’s relies largely on workers from eastern Europe to bring in the harvest from April to November.
Attracting the 60,000 to 70,000 seasonal workers needed across Britain each year has been a struggle since the Brexit referendum in 2016, prompting farm businesses to increase wages and spend more to recruit and retain people. The UK competes for farm workers with countries such as Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, and the fall in value of the pound means that they risk earning less if they come to Britain.
Industry groups such as the National Farmers Union and British Summer Fruits have warned the government that reliable access to labour is critical for fruit and vegetable growers, who are among the most profitable and least reliant on subsidies of farm businesses in the UK.
But with Boris Johnson, prime minister, insisting on the UK leaving the EU with or without a deal on October 31, and the harvest not yet finished, growers are worried about how they will staff their picking and packing operations in the coming weeks and months.
The government’s announcement last week that freedom of movement for EU nationals will end on October 31 in the event of a no-deal Brexit, without any clarity of what that means in detail, has sown confusion among farmers.
The uncertainty is also making it harder to convince the seasonal workers currently in Britain to commit to coming back for the next picking season, which risks lowering retention rates, according to two recruitment agencies.
Few British workers want such temporary jobs that require long hours in difficult conditions. The jobs typically pay workers the national minimum wage of £8.21 an hour plus performance-related bonuses, for example by kilogramme of fruit or vegetables picked.
Ali Capper, who heads the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board, said she had fielded multiple calls and emails from the biggest producers of fruit and vegetables in recent days about the government’s announcement on ending free movement in a no-deal Brexit.
“They are in disbelief,” said Ms Capper, who runs an apples and hops farm with her family in Worcester. “As a sector we’ve spent every moment since the referendum to make sure that everyone in government understands why labour is such a critical issue.”
Her farm has a permanent staff of about six people, but needs about 65 seasonal workers each year to bring in the crops.
Before the government’s latest announcement, there were signs that the sector had been able to mitigate labour shortages this harvest by hiring more people in anticipation that roughly a quarter of them will not show up.
According to data from the NFU, the shortfall in seasonal workers from January to June was slightly smaller than during the same period last year. About 11.5 per cent of job vacancies so far this year have gone unfilled because workers could not be found or because they did not arrive as promised. That compares with a 15.8 per cent shortfall during the same period in 2018, and 16.2 per cent in 2017.
But the problem is far from solved: last year 56 per cent of growers surveyed by the NFU reported not being able to secure all the seasonal workers they needed, compared with 59 per cent in 2017. In contrast, the figure stood at 25 per cent before the referendum.
Last year, 44 per cent of farmers also reported crops going unharvested as a result of labour shortages, a significant increase from the 30 per cent in 2017.
Nick Marston, who leads British Summer Fruits, which represents growers of strawberries, raspberries and cherries, said such wastage was unavoidable when workers are scarce.
Some relief has come this year from a new, two-year pilot scheme that gives visas to 2,500 seasonal workers from outside the EU to pick fruit and vegetables on British farms for up to six months. The initiative is similar to one that existed before 2013, but the government has not yet decided on whether to make it permanent.
Farming organisations have urged that the visa programme for non-EU workers be greatly expanded, pointing out that Germany already has a similar scheme to bring people from Ukraine, while Spain hires from Morocco.
Siobhan Marsh, who heads human resources for Pro-Force Recruitment, one of two agencies running the pilot, said at its current size the scheme was “a drop in the ocean” compared to the sector’s overall needs. Pro-Force opened an office in Ukraine to help it bring roughly 1,500 workers to the UK this season.
“It gets harder and harder each year to recruit,” said Ms Marsh. “We’re still struggling but the pilot is propping us up.” However, it is no panacea: since the pilot does not cover flower farms, Ms Marsh has already started worrying about where she will find 1,000 workers to harvest daffodils in January.