Seasonal workers at critically low level, warns NFU

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

A lack of season workers could push up prices and lead to failed harvests, warned the NFU
A lack of season workers could push up prices and lead to failed harvests, warned the NFU

Related tags European union Eu

Harvests could fail and food prices would increase if the industry loses access to EU seasonal workers, warned the National Farmers Union (NFU) and trade body British Summer Fruits, after a fall in staff left food producers critically short of people.

The number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms dropped 17% between January and May this year, leaving some farms short of people to harvest fruit and vegetables.

Labour providers were unable to recruit sufficient numbers of workers to meet grower’s needs during the busy harvesting season, resulting in 1,500 unfilled vacancies in May alone.

The NFU called on the government and newly appointed environment secretary Michael Gove to provide clarity on how farms will access a reliable and competent workforce, both today and post-Brexit.

NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper said: “Farmers and growers need to know how the government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers.

“Without that, this trend is likely to continue and at this stage in the season any further tightening in the workforce will hit hard on farms.”

‘Further tightening in the workforce’

The proportion of returnees, which form a sizeable and dependable source of workers, has also dropped during the first five months of the year, falling from 65% to 33% – a fall of nearly 50%.

Seasonal labour shortages push up food prices

A report from the British Summer Fruits Council found that the price of strawberries would rise from £2 to £2.75 per 400g punnet – an increase of 37% – if producers were forced to move their operations to countries within the EU to secure labour.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said the industry needed access to seasonal workers from outside the UK, while the UK developed homegrown talent.

An FDF spokesman told “Our industry’s competitiveness and the UK’s food security will depend on the deal negotiated by government and arrangements that provide continued access to the workers that industry needs to keep the UK fed.

“Our members have stated that they’re having difficulty recruiting EU nationals for certain roles.”

A survey of FDF members found that their EU employees felt unwanted and uncomfortable, while one in 12 manufacturers said that some of their valued workers warned they planned to leave the UK.

“We understand that controlled immigration is crucial to healthy communities,”​ added the spokesman. “But we value greatly the contribution of the 117,000 EU citizens already working in food and drink manufacturing and urge their right to remain.”

‘Urge their right to remain’

The latest round of Brexit talks saw Prime Minister Theresa May push a new “UK settled status” ​that would allow EU migrants that have lived in the UK for five years the right to stay and access health, education and other benefits.

However, the proposals hinged on EU Member States guaranteeing Britons the same rights.

Meanwhile, the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, revealed that three quarters of manufacturers – including food and drink firms – have struggled to fill engineering roles.

EEF director of employment and skills Tim Thomas said: “Preventing industry from being able to recruit the best skilled workers from the EU could stifle growth and damage British industry and the UK economy as a whole.

“As a priority the government should clarify the reciprocal rights of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals currently working in other EU Member States.”

What the NFU wants from Brexit talks

  • Access to sufficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers from outside of the UK after the UK leaves the EU.
  • Clarity on the new rules for EU migrants living and working in the UK, long before free movement ends in 2019.
  • Home Office to instruct the Migration Advisory Committee to undertake a full impact assessment of new immigration system options and their suitability for agriculture and horticulture.

Related topics People & Skills Fresh produce

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