The fallout from the Brexit vote has seen food left rotten in the fields, thanks to a shortage of workers needed to harvest it.
A shortfall of 17% hit farms across the UK in May 2017, compared to just 4% back in 2016 prior to the Brexit vote.
Seasonal workers needed
Some farms were critically short of pickers, according to a survey from the National Farmers Union (NUF). The biggest reason behind the decline in workers was named as the Brexit vote, which has left other nations viewing the UK as xenophobic and racist.
Around 80,000 workers are needed every year to harvest the fruit and vegetables grown in the UK, with almost all of them coming from Eastern European countries. Although two-thirds of workers often come back to harvest again the next year, just one third came back in the months between January and May. This means that workers who are already experienced at the tasks these interim food jobs required have been lost.
13,400 workers were recruited and recorded in the NFU survey this year; of those, just 14 were of British origin. The large bulk of the workers, at 75%, were from Bulgaria or Romania. The rest were largely made up of workers from other parts of Eastern Europe.
“The grim reality is that the perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we’re racist, and the pound has plummeted too,” said John Hardman, director at Hops Labour Solutions. “We’ve gone with Brexit and that makes us look unfriendly. The immediate impact is that there will be crops left in the fields. [The warning] couldn’t be more timely with Wimbledon around the corner as 99.9% of Wimbledon strawberries are picked by eastern Europeans.”
Strawberry and raspberry prices could jump by as much as 35% to 50% if Britain does not have access to seasonal workers after Brexit, according to a report by British Summer Fruits.
All areas of the seasonal food industry have been affected by the cuts. The BBC carried out a survey of fruit and salad farmers and found that 21% of farms reported having fewer workers than they needed to harvest all of their crops. 80% said that food recruitment had been harder than usual this year, and 20% said it was the hardest that they had experienced in a long time.
The CLA found that 44% of their members, who are rural land and business owners, had seen a reduction in the available migrant labour they had access to over the past year.
“Farmers and growers need to know how the government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers,” said Ali Capper, chair of the NFU horticulture board. “The NFU is calling for reassurance that farmers will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce both now and in the future. Without that, this trend is likely to continue and will hit hard.”
The government, however, does not appear to be concerned by the latest statistics. “We do not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify a seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme in 2017,” Robert Goodwill, immigration minister, told MPs.
John Hardman’s view is that people who believe that UK workers will step in to fill the void are operating under a delusion. He says, “There is no appetite in the UK labour pool for seasonal agricultural work.” That seems to be backed up by the very small amount of UK workers taking up seasonal work in the food industry, despite the need for more workers.