A GOVERNMENT freeze on visas for workers from Bulgaria and Romania is creating a chronic shortage of labour in parts of the UK vegetable industry.

“We expect to have 130 to 140 workers with us by this time of year but we have only 70 so far,” said Jamie Macdonald of Fridaybridge International Farm Camp, near Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on Wednesday (Apr 29).

Normally 50% of the staff he recruits at this time of year and hires out to local fruit and vegetable businesses come from Bulgaria.

But this year, due to a freeze on visas under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme, he has only a handful.

They came in before government froze all visa applications as a result of the widely-reported abuse of the skilled worker visa scheme, he said.

“I could understand the freeze if there had been problems with the SAWS scheme in the past but there have not.”

This is despite a recent review of the scheme by the government agency Work Permits UK.

It concluded the scheme is valuable to UK agriculture and recommended a modest increase in the number of SAWS visas granted, added Mr Macdonald.

He said he was annoyed that the ban has been lifted on tourist and student visas, yet he believes these are the visas most frequently abused.

“They come in on these visas then stay on after they expire and/or work illegally while they are here.

“Meanwhile we have work and accommodation lined up for people under SAWS and they can‘t get the visas.

“It seems totally the wrong way round to me.”

Asparagus grower Victor Aveling is just one of many who have been hit by the shortage.

He normally starts the cutting season with 10 workers and one charge hand. This year he had five.

“The problem is we have had much more waste. If you leave asparagus too long at this time of year the heads open and it is worthless.”

Wednesday‘s rain and cooler conditions came as a relief, slowing crop growth and giving his team, now up to nine, a chance to catch up.

Mr Macdonald said he had raised issue frequently with the Home Office.

But after receiving no satisfactory answers as to when the problem would be resolved he has now written to his MP.

“We have been left hanging with no date to work towards. It is impossible to make plans,” he said.

“We don‘t know whether to recruit from elsewhere or hold on in the hope that the staff we were expecting get visas.”