'We have put our growth strategy on hold' - Fruit farmers want certainty over vital foreign workers
Fears of a crippling labour shortage on East Anglian farms have sparked urgent calls to protect the industry's crucial supply line of Eastern European seasonal workers.
Investment plans have been put on hold within some of the region's biggest fruit and vegetable growers while uncertainty lingers over how post-Brexit immigration policies will affect food firms' access to summer pickers, packers and processing staff.
Former farming minister George Eustice has submitted a motion to parliament which says agriculture and horticulture sectors are reporting "acute difficulties recruiting labour for the 2019 harvest, with fewer migrant workers returning to the UK".
He said the government must increase the size of its 2019 pilot Seasonal Workers Scheme from 2,500 to 10,000 places, and to take immediate steps to convert the pilot into a fully-operational policy for 2020 with a minimum of 30,000 places for non-EU citizens.
Those calls have been echoed by the National Farmers' Union, which has urged its members to contact their MPs to drive home the importance of foreign labour to fill part-time manual jobs in the fields and factories.
One of the country's biggest soft fruit growers is Place UK, at Tunstead in north Norfolk, which grows 7% of the UK's raspberries and sent its first batch of new-season UK strawberries into supermarkets earlier this month.
Managing director Tim Place said while he is confident the business will fill its vacancies this year, the firm's ability to satisfy these markets in future could be threatened if it could not guarantee its summer workforce - which currently employs around 500 people from Bulgaria and Romania.
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"This year we have just about scraped a plan together and it looks like we will manage OK - but our team has had to work a lot harder to recruit people, as most people from Bulgaria and Romania want to find permanent work in other countries like Germany," he said.
"Brexit has made everyone think that the UK is not welcoming for people to come from abroad to work. It has made us less attractive, while other countries are welcoming them and helping them.
"It is a constant risk to our business. The strategy choice for our business is: Should we run the risk of moving forward with fruit production, which is very labour-dependant, with the current issues of trying to source workers?
"We cannot afford to go backwards. We have got to move our business forward to be sustainable, but we have put our growth strategy on hold at the moment while these issues are being sorted out - so we need a clear direction from the government."
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Chris Newenham is joint managing director of Essex jam-maker Wilkin and Sons of Tiptree, which employs around 300 seasonal workers, also from Bulgaria and Romania, to pick its fruit during the peak summer season.
He said the expansion of the government's pilot scheme was a "step in the right direction" - but more action was needed to fill the estimated 60,000 seasonal job vacancies in farming and horticulture across the country.
"For us, recruitment has been OK up to this point in time, but retention is proving to be more challenging," he said. "No-one knows what is going to happen with Brexit, but if Romania and Bulgaria don't have fair access to this country and the value of sterling falls further, these people will be considering their options elsewhere, which hastens the day we will need a proper seasonal workers scheme.
"We are not investing as heavily in increasing our production as we might like. We are hedging our bets in that respect, but that said, we have a commitment to growing fruit for our factory. It is not an easy tap to turn on and off."