Suppliers of labour to the horticulture and potato sectors are finding it increasingly difficult to source the workers they need, NFU research has confirmed.
The survey, which covers 40% of the seasonal labour market, was established in December 2013, following the abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (Saws).
It keeps monthly tabs on the availability of seasonal workers and predicts any shortfalls.
“This tool also enables us to build a national picture of the level of turnover, country of origin of overseas workers and sectors supplied,” said NFU chief horticulture adviser Chris Hartfield.
According to the most recent survey, labour providers were only able to recruit 3,882 seasonal workers in the July-September quarter (Q3), which was 5% below target.
This compared with 9,480 in the January-March quarter (Q1), which was 13% ahead of target.
The number or “returnees” from previous seasons has decreased steadily this year, falling from 69% of seasonal workers in Q1 to just 10% in Q3.
Conversely, the number of workers who did not reach the end of their contract period – either because they did not show up, or left or were dismissed – climbed from 8% in Q1 to 38% in Q3.
Another notable trend was that the proportion of seasonal workers coming from Romania and Bulgaria grew from 68% in Q1 to 84% in Q3, while those from other east European countries fell.
In terms of the ability of labour suppliers to meet demand, the trend was firmly downwards. In Q1, 78% of respondents to the survey said they could meet demand, but by Q3 this had fallen to just 20%.
At the same time, the proportion who said the supply of seasonal labour was tightening grew from 22% to 33%, though the picture was even worse last spring, when 47% reported a diminishing pool.
The soft fruit sector is struggling the most, with 75% of labour providers not able to meet demand.
The findings of the survey are in contrast to the views of immigration minister Robert Goodwill, who last week told a Westminster debate that the number of EU citizens in the UK workforce was higher in the quarter to September 2016 than in the same period of 2015.
“This does not suggest to me that there is a major exodus from the UK, though I will continue to monitor the situation closely,” he said.
But the NFU has questioned the validity of the data, compiled by the independent National Office of Statistics. In particular, they cover the whole labour force and not specific sectors within it.
Furthermore, the survey is based on a sample of 40,000 households.
“Many seasonal workers live in caravans and other temporary accommodation, so will not be picked up by this labour force survey,” said a spokesman.