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Horticulture industry 'in crisis' over seasonal worker visas

A Co Down mushroom farm may not be able to remain open in the future due to short-term visas for seasonal workers, according to its owner.

Gerard Fegan has operated the farm in Mayobridge for 30 years but said rarely has he faced such a crisis in manpower in his business.

Currently, seasonal workers can come to the UK for six months to work in the horticultural sector, including at food producing companies like his.

However, due to training for new workers taking between two and four months, Gerard says he's losing employees just as they're getting up to speed with the process.

"It takes between two to four months to train a harvester up to get to speed" Gerard said, "and then by six months they're gone."

"You just bring them in then and repeat the process again.

"So you're constantly recruiting and training."

When Gerard first opened the mushroom farm three decades ago, it was one of 300 across Northern Ireland. Now, only 10 remain, a figure he puts down to a shortage in workers. Mushroom growers still currently represent 40% of the whole horticultural sector.

Recently, the impact of Brexit and losing mainly EU workers has had an effect on business.

In Westminster, the Migration Advisory Committee is seeking responses as part of an inquiry into how well the Seasonal Worker visa scheme is operating.

At the same time, the SDLP is tabling a motion at Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in a bid to highlight the issues to the Government.

Councillor Pete Byrne the issue needs resolved speedily to help food producers who are under pressure.

"Businesses like this have the ability to grow", said Cllr Byrne, "We've seen over the last couple of months the shortages of food on the shelves.

"It's really important that we get homegrown producers supported. And with simple relaxations to the visa schemee, we can do that."

DUP EFRA Spokesperson Carla Lockhart said "We need common sense to prevail where industries simply cannot source labour locally to complete essential tasks. If mushroom growers cannot get people from the UK to work in that industry, then the reality is they must be able to bring workers into the UK to assist their business. Otherwise, those industries will simply collapse."

A visa scheme in the Republic of Ireland currently give workers much longer to stay and work, something Gerard Fegan says is an attractive prospect to the workers he has lost across the border.

Responses to the Westminster inquiry can be submitted online until 19 September as businesses like Gerard's aim to stay alive.


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