Horticulture under pressure as migrant workers shun UK farms

Eastern European workers are shunning the UK farming industry to work in other countries amid the uncertainty over Brexit, it has emerged.

The NFU’s horticultural spokesperson Amy Gray said that although a shortage had yet to show up in the union’s regular labour surveys, anecdotally, labour providers are starting to struggle to source migrant farmworkers.

One recruitment agency finding it hard to fill picking roles in the horticulture and vegetable sectors is Hops, one of the largest in labour providers to UK agriculture.

See also: Migrant workers ‘crucial to our farm business’ 

Hops director John Hardman told Farmers Weekly: “We have got growers with huge crops and we have taken orders for staff, but the migrant workers are just not arriving.

“Last year the industry had considerable shortages at peak season, and we took on many short orders, but this year we are only at the start of soft fruit, and we are already unable to supply.”

One customer has already been let down as he could not find enough labour to supply the 35 workers needed to pick a strawberry crop.

Mr Hardman believes the combination of a plummet in the value of sterling, the view that the UK is xenophobic and unfriendly since the Brexit vote, and the perception that working conditions and pay rates are better in other European countries, is leaving his company with “a huge shortage of staff”.

“We are being told that nothing will happen until after the election. At the moment, the approach by government seems apathetic to this very serious situation,” he added.

Mr Hardman said both the food industry as a whole needs the reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural workers-type scheme as soon as possible.

CLA labour survey

A survey by the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) has also revealed the extent of the problem. Nearly 45% of its members have reported experiencing a reduction in the availability of migrant labour over the past year.

Of the 90% of respondents who tried to fill positions with local British workers, most were unsuccessful.

CLA senior economics adviser Dr Charles Trotman said: “To support the already acute shortage of labour, a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme must be introduced immediately, not after the UK has left the EU and the government must also confirm the status of EU migrant workers in sectors such as food processing, horticulture and tourism already resident in the UK.”