'If I don't have these seasonal workers, I don't have a business' - Norfolk farmers urge ministers to protect migrant EU workforce
ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434
The future availability of migrant labour is an urgent concern for East Anglian businesses - particularly food growers, who have urged ministers to remove obstacles to recruiting the seasonal European workers they rely on to pick their crops.
East Anglian food growers are putting investment plans on hold as a shortage of seasonal migrant workers threatens to leave their crops rotting in the fields.
Workers from Eastern Europe – vital to the viability of many farm and horticultural businesses – are choosing to work elsewhere on the continent as the uncertain implications of Brexit and the weak pound make countries like Germany or Spain more appealing, according to industry leaders.
Concordia, which recruits about 10,000 foreign workers for 200 UK farms, said it could be 10pc short this year. Chief executive Stephanie Maurel urged the government to give the go-ahead to recruit workers from non-EU countries like Ukraine to meet the worrying shortfall.
And that plea was echoed at farms which the company works with in East Anglia.
Andy Allen produces up to 250 tonnes of asparagus a year at Portwood Farm in Attleborough – which won a high profile customer this year when the farm’s produce was served to guests at the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But despite that accolade, he is worried about the future of his business if it cannot safeguard its 100-strong seasonal workforce, which are mostly employed from Romania and Bulgaria.
“If I don’t have these seasonal workers here, I don’t have a business,” he said. “I would have to pack up.
“Because asparagus is a very long-term crop, prior to Brexit I had already ordered my crowns for replanting and I was not able to back out of that. We have planted more this year to keep the area up and to expand a bit, but I really wish I hadn’t. We just have to hope this gets resolved, otherwise we don’t know if we will have the people to pick it.
“I dare not invest any more in expansion. We are not going to plant anything next year in reality, which means we are contracting and getting smaller in two or three years’ time.
“It is a massive, massive concern which most people just don’t seem to understand the gravity of. I think the government has an understanding of it, but they are not able to sort it out. Until they do, we are going to go backwards in the next five years. There is going to be an awful lot of casualties.”
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”.
But while discussions continue over potential migration controls after Brexit, fruit and vegetable growers are calling for a replacement to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) which gave temporary permits for migrant workers from Eastern Europe until it was scrapped in 2013.
Mr Allen said: “We are looking for a replacement for SAWS, but with the option of coming for nine months, rather than six months, and also to extend it beyond Europe to the rest of the world – I would welcome anybody.
“Ironically, we just want free movement. We had just enough people for this year, but I know Concordia have struggled to fill our positions.”
Some of Mr Allen’s seasonal recruits also work with Malcolm Kemp, who runs a herb business near Thetford, growing 60-80 tonnes of crops a week including baby spinach, coriander, parsley, rosemary and basil across 600 acres of land at Kilverstone and East Harling.
At the height of the season, he employs up to 65 foreign workers, mostly from Bulgaria and Romania. Mr Kemp attributes his high returnee rate to good working relationships, accommodation, and opportunities for promotion and personal development.
“We couldn’t run without them,” he said. “Some of our crops are hand-harvested, depending on customer specifications, and there is a certain amount that you cannot do with machines. Without these people, I couldn’t do this job and we couldn’t get the quality into the packets for the supermarket.
“Right now, Kemp Herbs is OK. Part of the reason we are OK is that we are working with Andy Allen and so we are able to give the workers a longer continuity of work without changing accommodation.
“We have approximately 60% returnees here, which is unheard of. But that does not mean I am not worried.
“My concern is for next year because this government won’t get off the fence and sort it out.
“They need to put into operation a new version of SAWS and get on with it, because we need a guarantee not only that these people will be able to come here next year, but also for us to be able to invest in the future of the horticultural industry.”
In other sectors, British Summer Fruits (BSF) said 61% of UK berry growers are having trouble recruiting workers, and 63% have reported a drop in applications for seasonal work.
As a result of uncertainty about access to skilled agricultural workers, 78% of growers expect to produce less fruit in future, while 32% have already made the decision to reduce investment in their businesses.
Earlier this month, Essex fruit grower and jam maker Wilkin & Sons at Tiptree, which employs around 300 seasonal workers, said it fears that Brexit could put its UK growing operation in jeopardy unless politicians agree to reinstate a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
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.”
Workers at Kemp Herbs in Kilverstone explained their feelings about working in East Anglia.
• Georgie Dumitrascu, 29, from Romania, has been living in the UK for three years. She said: “I need to stay here because I have cancer treatment here, so its important for me because in my country I don’t have a chance to get this treatment.
“Here we have better chances to save some money, like buying a house a new car or saving for the family. In Romania the salary is so small you cannot afford to save money, that is why we choose to come here. Most of the Romanians know English so it is much easier for us to come to a country where we know how to speak and understand. In Germany, you understand nobody.”
• Karil Kamov, 27, from Bulgaria, has been returning for five years. He said: “It’s good, the work is good and the people are good here. Its much better than in Bulgaria. I will still come here next year, and maybe years more. We need to come, because without us it would be hard for the farmers.”
• Cristina Cordon, 26, from Romania, has also been coming to East Anglia for five years. She said: “I listen about Brexit, but I hope they don’t make this Brexit because its not good for us. Here we work one month and in Romania we need to work six months to make the same money.”