Will there be enough workers to harvest this summer's strawberries?
- Credit: Sharrington Strawberries
A Norfolk strawberry grower fears he may not have enough seasonal workers to pick his crop this summer due to post-Brexit immigration red tape.
Simon Turner, of Sharrington Strawberries in the village near Holt, said he currently only has 11 of the 62 workers he will need to harvest his crop during the spring and summer.
His workforce traditionally arrives from countries including Romania and Bulgaria. But following Brexit, the free movement of migrant farm labour from the EU ended and was replaced by a pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which was extended in 2021 to make 30,000 visas available for people to work on UK farms.
Mr Turner said although he has been allocated 40 workers under the scheme, with the first 20 due on May 7, he has been given no assurances that they will arrive - with other European countries potentially being a more attractive option.
"It is very worrying to be in a situation where you are not certain that these people are going to come," he said "Until they are here, we won't know. We have got so much money invested here and if we lose the crop we could lose a lot of money.
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"If they all come, we will cope. But otherwise we will be in trouble.
"There is a huge amount of form-filling and they will have to apply for their visas but we are worried that some won't bother to apply, or won't get one. They can all go and work anywhere in Europe and they might think it is easier to get to another country."
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Mr Turner said Brexit was bigger factor on his workforce than Covid-19, even though the pandemic has made it more difficult for people to travel.
"If they come to the UK they will have to be tested, as they would have to in other European countries, and we can sort that, but the problem is that we are not sure if they are going to come," he said.
He added that British workers were unlikely to fill the gap left by eastern Europeans, which had been proven by the enthusiastic but ineffective response to last year's Pick for Britain campaign, which aimed to galvanise a home-grown workforce at the height of the pandemic.
"We are very grateful for all the people who wanted to come and pick strawberries for us last year, but they just couldn't do it," he said. "They came with the best intentions but they didn't realise how hard it was. Out of 84 British people I had last year, only six stayed."
Mr Turner's concerns were echoed by another grower in Breckland, who did not wish to be named, but said: "In two weeks' time we will be 20 people short and I cannot find them at the moment. There is definitely going to be a mass shortage."
But Tim Place, who employs up to 500 seasonal workers to pick fruit at Place UK in Tunstead near North Walsham, said the situation is no more uncertain than in previous years - although the costs of recruitment have risen "massively".
"If you do the work up front it is no different to where we have been in previous years," he said.
"Our guys have worked their socks off this year to get the people here. They are still unconfirmed, but it has always been a bit like that. Until they turn up they are not here.
"You have got to have good accommodation and welfare, and you have you have got to be proactive to attract people to come. You have got to make sure they are well informed of the situation, and how Covid testing is operating on the farm.
"It is still early days and there could still be a hiccup, so we need to keep the communications going.
"It is more difficult for people without pre-settled status coming through the seasonal pilot scheme. They have to get a visa, which is a lot of hassle, but that is how it used to be pre-2012 (when the previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme ended).
Mr Place said although the pilot scheme will need to be expanded for future years, he believed 30,000 workers will be enough to meet industry needs this season.
"There are still a lot of people on pre-settled status able to come from Romania and Bulgaria," he said. "Normally we have about 65pc returnees, so we will be able to get the other 35pc through the seasonal pilot scheme this year."