With an estimated shortfall of about 80,000 workers and the UK entering its peak picking season, pressures to bridge a rising farm work gap have seen a spike in labour costs, which have been ‘exacerbated’ by a lack of returns paid for British produce.
Pointing to the fact labour accounts for a ‘significant proportion’ of costs, British Growers’ Association chief executive Jack Ward said: “There has been an issue across the fresh produce industry about the returns growers are seeing from the products they produce, and this has been exacerbated by Covid-19.
“We are seeing a marked increase in labour costs as a result of the added pressures of higher staff turnover and the decreased output of inexperienced workers.”
NFU Scotland horticulture committee chairman James Porter added: “With the cost of minimum wage rising by 6 per cent alongside inexperienced workers contributing to lower output yields, which has seen a reduction of about 4p per punnet, growers are facing substantial losses.”
Despite nationwide Government-backed recruitment campaigns such as Pick for Britain generating high levels of interest in picking roles, very few applicants had been offered jobs.
When British workers were taken on by farm businesses, many quit their roles soon after.
David Hobbes, a self-employed landscape gardener from Buckinghamshire, who utilised the website after finding himself out of work for 6 weeks due to Covid-19, said the scheme had proved largely unsuccessful.
“I applied to a number of farms but received responses back which detailed they had filled their vacancies. I was surprised given that you hear stories about them being severely short staffed and in desperate need of local workers," he said.
"And despite the drive for British workers, it seems the Government is willing to allow growers to charter planes to bring in migrant labour during the coronavirus pandemic.”
NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw acknowledged the ‘huge’ picking operation at harvest needed to be supplemented by skilled workers from overseas.
He said: “We have been relying on overseas labour for the past 20 years as they are a criticial part of our workforce. It would be impossible to operate without them.
“And many workers in the UK have been met with the harsh reality of a labour-intensive and highly dexterous job, which has meant some have been unable to stick at it. This has caused problems for growers, as the recruitment process begins again.”
Although a sharp increase in UK unemployment has been predicted due to the pandemic, many of those without employment were not based where farmwork was available and those who had been furloughed would be expected to go back to their previous jobs.