Could Norfolk's asparagus harvest be under threat from post-Brexit labour shortages?
PUBLISHED: 12:15 08 March 2019 | UPDATED: 12:15 08 March 2019
©Archant Photographic 2009
A new pilot seasonal workers scheme has been welcomed by farmers - but concerns remain that businesses are in jeopardy if the critical supply of European labour fails after Brexit.
The pilot, which opened this week, means UK fruit and vegetable growers can employ up to 2,500 non-EU migrant workers for seasonal work for up to six months.
Two scheme operators – Concordia and Pro-Force – have been licenced to manage the pilot and will be responsible for identifying suitable workers and matching them to UK farmers. The first workers are due to arrive on UK farms this spring, subject to recruitment and visa application processes.
The Home Office and Defra said the government had listened to the concerns of the farming and horticultural industries, and the pilot will test the effectiveness of the immigration system at alleviating seasonal labour shortages during peak production periods.
But East Anglian producers remain concerned about the implications of a no-deal Brexit, which could immediately end the free movement of workers from the EU.
Andy Allen produces up to 250 tonnes of asparagus a year at Portwood Farm in Attleborough. He needs 120 seasonal workers to harvest the crop during the 10-week season, which starts at the beginning of April.
“This pilot is very welcome,” he said. “I think the government has listened a little bit to what we have been saying, and I think it is a good start, but 2,500 people is a drip in the ocean.
“It is critical we have a supply of labour, but it all depends on the outcome of Brexit and the movement of people from the EU.
“At the moment it looks like we are covered, as we have got 70 people coming before the end of March, and I have brought some of those forward so they don’t get held up at the borders.
“As long as we get those 70 in, it will give us enough to make a start, but if I don’t get the rest I will be knackered. I need 120 staff to pick the crop and there is not enough unemployment or local staff in this area to pick up those numbers.
“If they close borders, that is the worst case scenario but my business would completely be in jeopardy, along with many, many others.
“We don’t have machines to do this job, it is not a job you can do with robots. If I don’t have enough people to pick asparagus, I go out of business, full stop.”
DEAL OR NO DEAL
Defra says if a Brexit deal is agreed there will be no change to current arrangement for EU citizens in 2019 and 2020, with workers able to enter the UK on either an EU passport or national ID. But if there is no deal then EU citizens arriving after March 29 will need to register for European Temporary Leave to Remain to continue working in the UK for more than three months, which will involve identity, criminality and security checks.
Stephanie Mauriel, chief executive at Concordia, welcomed the pilot but said the 2,500 non-EU workers it provided was only a quarter of what was needed to correct last year’s 13pc shortfall in seasonal labour, which left some unharvested crops rotting in fields.
She said: “The pilot permit scheme is for any country outside the EU because at the moment we are assuming freedom of movement remains until 2020.
“The secretary of state has said that even if there is no deal, people can come and work on a three-month rotation – but everything is subject to legislation, which makes people nervous.
“There are solutions, but a lot of damage has already been done to the reputation of our welcome of seasonal agricultural workers compared to other EU countries, so they are choosing to go to places like Germany instead.”
Defra food minister David Rutley said: “Our farmers and growers have been absolutely clear about the need for additional sources of labour to work on farms during the busy harvest months.
“We have heard these concerns, which is why we are opening this pilot to boost the workforce on farms this spring and summer and help farmers with their harvests.”