British workers are dropping out of farming jobs leaving farmers forced to recruit and retain thousands of East Europeans.
Farmers are continuing to fly East European workers into the UK because of concerns at the cost of training up British staff, their reliability and the uncertainty that furloughed employees could return to their workplaces as the coronavirus lockdown eases.
Some have prepared quarantine measures so they can continue to bring in East European labour if the Government imposes health restrictions on arrivals at the end of May.
William White, regional director for the National Farmers’ Union in South East England, said: “If you are a grower with produce you need to get into supermarkets for the next five or six months, you can’t leave labour to chance.
“There’s this very difficult balancing act between trying to work out what your requirement is for East European workers relative to the furloughed.
“If you are furloughed and you are getting 80 per cent of your salary, how committed are you going to be to what can be demanding work? There was an example of someone who had taken on 50 British workers and in the course of the week were down to seven.”
Farmers have welcomed the Government’s Pick for Britain campaign to recruit a new UK “land army” but have been alarmed by initial data showing that out of 50,000 home-grown applicants, 6,000 opted for an interview but only 112 took up the offer of a role on a UK farm.
Some 900 explicitly rejected offers because they were unable to accept the full length of a contract, the distance to the farm was too far, they had care responsibilities or only wanted part-time work.
James Foskett, who farms 3,750 acres of land in Suffolk, already has nearly 40 Romanian workers on site and plans to fly in a further 40 this month. “They are returners and have been here a few times before. They want to come, and we want to get them here. It is just how we do it,” he said.
He said it was not just hard work, but also skilful: “I cannot send 1,000 bags of carrots to Sainsbury if they have not been graded and bunched properly.”
James Simpson, managing director of Adrian Scripps Ltd, which has five apple, pear and blackcurrant farms in Kent, said they were bringing in up to 60 East Europeans in the coming weeks - and had quarantine measures on site to isolate new arrivals for two weeks while they worked.
He said they were “desperately keen” also to recruit local workers and had 10 furloughed workers already but added: “It’s a question of timing and circumstances as to whether that’s possible.
“The bulk of our work is September and October. I suspect some furloughed workers will be back in their respective industries and students will be back at university.”
Alastair Brooks, chairman of Berry Gardens Growers in Kent, has brought back 120 East European workers, many of whom have worked for him for up to 12 years, and plans a further 40. His son, agricultural undergraduate, has recruited 40 university students.
“We are only getting the people we know from abroad. Restrictions on movement in Europe seem to be easing in late May and June so people will still travel,” said Mr Brooks.
G’s Fresh, one of the UK’s biggest salad growers, chartered two planes to bring in the first group of its planned 700 Romanians and Hungarians. They have been quarantined in small teams before full deployment.
The company said it needed the skilled Romanians “to make sure everyone is safe and knows what to do” with some 1,800 UK workers expected to join its operation.
Defra said it was working closely with the industry to ensure vacancies were put up online including on the Pick for Britain website so that there were not shortages at the end of May/June peak season. “We will need continually to review and ensure any wider drive is done at the right time,” said a source.