Labour shortage threatens fruit and veg supply

By Michael Stones

- Last updated on GMT

The shortage of seasonal workers threatens the £3bn horticultural industry, warns the NFU
The shortage of seasonal workers threatens the £3bn horticultural industry, warns the NFU

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A lack of seasonal labour is threatening the harvest of UK fruit and vegetables, after one in three growers admitted to struggling to source workers, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU).

The results of its 2015 End of Season Horticultural Survey were “very worrying”,​ with inadequate seasonal labour sourcing being the main issue of concern, said the union.

To remedy the shortfall, the NFU urged the government to introduce a new student workers scheme, to attract agricultural students from all over the world to undertake seasonal harvest work.

“This will attract young people into the industry who’ll bring innovation, energy and skills that will help increase productivity on UK farms,” ​said the union.

These results were claimed to be the first demonstration, since the ending of the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2013, that growers were struggling to source an adequate supply of seasonal workers to meet their needs. Up to 29% of respondents reported experiencing problems last year.

Contributed £3bn to the UK economy

NFU president Meurig Raymond said warned that lack of labour threatened to undermine the horticulture industry, which contributed £3bn to the UK economy and employed about 37,000 people in England alone.

“However, a further 40,819 seasonal workers are needed every year in England to help grow, harvest and pack the produce,”​ said Raymond.

“Harvest seasons with insufficient seasonal labour lead to British crops remaining unpicked, businesses facing massive losses and retailers being forced to fill shelves with imported produce.”

Introducing a new student scheme would attract young people who would bring skills that could help increase productivity in the UK, he added. “This will help avoid labour shortages and the potential consequences of higher food prices, increased imports and loss of full time jobs that seasonal work supports.”

Migrant workers move into other sectors

The NFU said it had predicted the ending of SAWS would lead to shortages in seasonal labour in horticulture as migrant workers moved into other sectors of the economy. Those concerns were supported by the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee.

“These results show that, just two years after the removal of SAWS, growers are already experiencing major problems securing their supply of seasonal workers,”​ said the union.

Last year businesses employing a higher number of seasonal workers were said to have experienced more problems. The labour-intensive fruit sector was hardest hit, with 43% of respondents experiencing problems last year.

Growers predicted the challenge of sourcing labour was likely to intensify, as labour became both more expensive and harder to find. 

Of those surveyed, 53% expected an increase in labour costs this year, with this proportion rising to 84% within two years.

Two-thirds predicted reductions in labour availability by 2018, with 43% believing that this would result in their business experiencing labour shortages.

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1 comment

When I was a lad...

Posted by Graeme,

Local people were the main source of employees for businesses involved in fruit and veg growing. For younger people especially, this was a great way of appreciating the products, where they came from and, starting to understand money and the world of work. The reliance on a workforce from outwith the local communities is a reflection of the times we live in, and the reluctance of our own to become involved in hard graft, an ethic that has not left me, given the grounding I had on the berry and tattie fields where I grew up.

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