East Anglian fruit and veg growers urged the government to act now to stop migrants leaving the UK post-Brexit
- Credit: Grant Norman / MMP
A new system should be put in place now to recruit migrant workers from across the world to pick East Anglia's fruit and vegetables, MPs have been told.
Directors at major companies in the region told a Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry it was impossible to recruit enough people locally to fill their seasonal posts.
Beverly Dixon, HR director at Fens-based G's Group, whose 3,800 UK workforce includes about 2,500 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, said there was a growing need for workers, and warned they would not be able to operate without access to the European Union.
Polish migrants, which made up their workforce a decade ago, had moved on to other jobs, she told MPs. Workers are now coming from Romania and Bulgaria, and Ms Dixon said they would like to recruit beyond the European Union too.
Since the Brexit vote last year job application numbers were down by 50pc, she said.
Only two people finished each of the company's 'Seeds to Success' courses - a 10 week training programme which is aimed at local NEETS - people not in employment, education or training.
Questioned about whether employers needed to pay more, she said they were paying at least the minimum wage during training and providing free transport and they earned performance-related pay after once they were trained.
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She said they were in a very labour intensive, low margin business and while 'enormous amounts of innovation and mechanisation was taking place it would take time to reduce the reliance on labour and there would products which were too difficult to mechanise.
'The alternative is the price of food will go up.'
She called for the government reassure migrants currently in the UK so they did not lose the people they had, and to introduce a new seasonal worker permit scheme.
She said it would be a worldwide permits and could rely on migrants having a job and be time related.
Susanna Rendall, the managing director of Boxford Group, which employs just under 700 people on the Suffolk and Essex border, said their attempt to recruit local workers following a BBC story in 2009 about their labour shortages had not been a success.
Of the five people who they recruited one did not turn up, one had left after the induction, two stayed for half the day and the final person did not return the following day. Ms Rendall also said that applicants for next year's seasonal work were 'way down'.
She also urged the government to give assurances to those living in the UK with permanent jobs that they would be allowed to stay after Brexit.
'The government must make them feel they are part of our society and they are not second class citizens,' she added.
She also said schools needed to emphasise that the industry had career prospects. She said people could start at the bottom and move up.
She said a new scheme needed to provide flexibility over numbers and that it needed to provide long enough permits to cover work from March to November.
She said they did not want to have to train tunnel teams twice a year. She also agreed there should be a worldwide scheme.
Waterbeach-based Midas Care company managing director Matthew Sumner, who was also giving evidence to MPs, said it was impossible to recruit enough people from the UK market.
He agreed that people needed to know their jobs were safe. He said adult social care needed to be give shortage occupation status so people could be recruited from overseas.