Farmers are chartering aircraft to bring in Eastern European workers to help pick fruit and veg amid concerns that not enough Brits are coming forward to work on farms.
Special charter flights for workers from Bucharest started landing at London Stansted Airport on Thursday (16 April) – and one private firm said another six flights are scheduled in the coming weeks.
Matthew Purton, head of commercial aviation at Air Charter Service (ACS), said the private firm had taken orders to bring about 750 Romanian workers into the UK to help pick seasonal crops during the coronavirus lockdown.
“It’s a mixture of farmers and recruitment companies paying for the services. We envisage doing a lot more of these flights,” said Mr Purton. “Ultimately, we will end up flying about 3,000 people in to work on UK farms, unless something major happens.”
The first flight was chartered by G’s Fresh, based near Ely, Cambridgeshire, one of the largest fresh food producers in the UK. The workers will be bussed to farms in the east of England to pick lettuces. They are all returnee workers who have been offered new contracts having completed seasonal work on UK farms last year.
The other five flights scheduled for the UK include two customers based in the South East and one in Scotland.
ACS had already started to fly Romanian workers into Germany to work on farms three weeks ago. To date, it has flown 772 farmworkers into Germany, with at least one flight per day scheduled between now and the end of April.
Romania has lifted restrictions to allow the farmworkers to fly overseas. Procedures put in place to prevent spread of coronavirus include health questionnaires, passengers having their temperature checked, and the use of hand sanitiser and masks on flights. Workers will also be seated in line with social distancing guidance.
The government says it has not been involved in chartering private flights of European workers into the UK. It continues to focus on attracting as many Brits as possible to work on farms. Defra has appealed to British people to take up jobs on farms “to help bring the harvest in”.
Several recruitment agencies have launched their own initiatives to encourage more Brits to work on farms with varying success. Total jobs has reported an 83% increase in applications for farming roles in the past month.
However, despite an estimated three million people faced with unemployment due to the Covid-19 crisis, farmers are having to bridge the shortfall by employing Eastern European staff amid concerns that crops will be left to rot in the ground.
The NFU says up to 80,000 seasonal fruit and veg pickers are needed and it says growers are “extremely concerned” about their ability to recruit workers this year.
Government and industry figures show that more than 60,000 seasonal labourers come to the UK each year to help complete annual harvests. But travel restrictions are expected to make it almost impossible for farmers to access the labour they need.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has warned that 75% of these workers will be unable to enter the UK due to coronavirus-related restrictions on freedom of movement. This leaves a shortage of 45,000 workers.
CLA president Mark Bridgeman said: “Over 30,000 people have come forward to help farmers, following the call to ‘Feed the Nation’, through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is great news and shows a tremendous attitude at these difficult times. But this excellent response in not enough – we need 80,000 people to ensure fruit and vegetables are picked on time this summer.
“Where it is possible and safe to do so in the current circumstances, bringing in workers from overseas to help meet the shortfall is the right thing to do if we want to keep the supermarkets stocked.
“However, we would strongly encourage people from across the country to keep coming forward and signing up with recruitment agencies. There are good jobs available and great opportunities for those currently furloughed, unemployed or students.”
A Defra spokesman said: “We know the demand for seasonal agricultural workers will rise in the months ahead, which is why we are working hard with industry to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need ahead of this time.
“We are encouraging as many people as possible to take part in seasonal working opportunities across the country to help bring the harvest in, and recruitment efforts by industry are well under way.”