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East Anglia Future 50

Fears of rotten crops due to shortage of seasonal farm workers

PUBLISHED: 14:51 04 June 2018 | UPDATED: 14:51 04 June 2018

Strawberry picking. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Strawberry picking. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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A shortage of seasonal workers could leave crops rotting in the field this summer, said food industry leaders – prompting a plea for non-EU workers to be allowed into the UK.

Workers from Eastern Europe are choosing to work elsewhere on the continent as the implications of Brexit, the weak pound and high travel costs to the UK take their toll.

Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, which recruits about 10,000 foreign workers for 200 farms in the UK each year – including about 800 to 18 farms in Norfolk and north Suffolk – said the company could be 10pc short this year, adding that nationally the picture will be “a lot, lot worse”.

She said the government needs to give the go-ahead to recruit workers from countries like Ukraine to meet the worrying shortfall.

“It’s compounding the misery for growers who are planting, and literally they are looking out of their windows not knowing if they’re going to have enough workers to harvest and gather in the crops and the fruit,” she said.

“The money [offered to workers] itself is reasonable, and that doesn’t come out as a complaint when we do our surveys and focus groups,

“What does is that the strength of the pound means that when they convert back into euro and to local currency they’re usually better off going to Germany or Scandinavia, because Brexit has actually had an impact on the comparison rates, which is one thing.”

Ms Maurel said while East Anglia is “not an area we are particularly struggling with” the numbers are still dropping here – although employers do enjoy a better reputation for human rights, honouring contracts, and social benefits compared to other countries.

“But that only goes so far if you can earn more in Germany because the strength of the pound has changed,” she added.

She said growers could make their jobs more appealing by offering perks such as social barbecues and English lessons to make workers feel more at home – and they must also be aware of their presence on Facebook, where most foreign workers will research and discuss potential employers.

Alison Capper, chair of the National Farmers’ Union horticulture and potatoes board, said it is a little early to get a clear picture of this season’s workforce.

She said anecdotally it seems growers “have just about enough labour”, but that the industry is “very concerned” about the summer months.

The consequences of a shortage will be wasted crops and lost revenue and profit, and potentially empty shelves in supermarkets.

“There is a shortage of seasonal workers across Europe,” she said. “Anecdotally, I heard yesterday that Germany have issued more permits for Ukrainians.

“So, every European country has a means to bring non-EU workers to do seasonal work.

“And that’s simply what we need. We need exactly the same as every other European country.

“We need a visa or permit scheme that will enable us to bring non-EU workers to grow, pick and pack fruit and veg.”

A government spokesman said: “Defra and the Home Office are working closely to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU.

“We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.”

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