Some areas of UK missing as much as 75 percent of seasonal workforce

Shoppers could struggle to get their hands on their favourite fruit and vegetables this summer due to a shortage of seasonal crop pickers, industry experts have warned.

Some areas of the UK are currently missing as much as 75 percent of their seasonal workforce, raising fears produce will be left to rot in the ground.

The impacts of Brexit, with a large number of seasonal crop pickers traditionally coming from the EU, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and delays in issuing temporary visas have been blamed.

Worried industry figures are said to be particularly concerned about the coming fortnight, when Tenderstem broccoli and courgettes both come into season.

Julian Marks, MD of food and farming company Barfoots, told industry magazine The Grocer that the situation was getting 'pretty desperate'.

'Ultimately, if it can't be harvested there will be gaps on shelves,' he warned.

Today the Government said it 'fully acknowledged' that the food and farming industry is facing 'labour challenges' and was working to 'mitigate' the issues.

The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said it had already relaxed visa entry requirements for season workers - following issues last year- and was working at attracting UK workers to the sector.

It comes as industry experts warned that staff shortages ranged from 30 percent in Worcestershire to 50 per cent in the East of England to 75 percent in other areas.

Julian Marks, MD of food and farming company Barfoots, told the magazine: 'we're just about keeping our heads above water but it could change in 48 hours or a week depending on delays on permits.

'The challenge for us comes in about a fortnight's time when we have Tenderstem broccoli and courgettes come in together, and you still have asparagus to pick now.'

Crops ready to pick now are being left to rot in the ground which will inevitably cause food shortages in the shops, he added.

'I know that there are salad growers in Kent who have already walked past crops.

'I know that there are asparagus growers who have mowed the top of the crop off to win themselves a week or two weeks and there are others who are saying that it looks like they will have to leave crop behind.

'Ultimately, if it can't be harvested there will be gaps on shelves.'

A vast majority of seasonal pickers come from overseas, including from the EU. Before Brexit most of Britain's seasonal crop pickers came over from eastern Europe.

But the flow has been disrupted since Brexit, with temporary staff now needing visas. A large number of the UK's seasonal workers also came from both Ukraine and Russia - which are now at war - further reducing the number of pickers available to the UK.

The UK introduced the seasonal workers' visa scheme in 2019, which allowed pickers to be flown in from any country around the world.

Last year, Britain turned to workers from further afield to plug the gaps left by EU pickers.

Home Office figures revealed how more than 16,000 labourers were shipped in from across 37 countries for the 2021 season - including from as far away as Barbados, Nepal, Tajikistan, Kenya and the Philippines.

In comparison, just 7,000 workers from 14 countries arrived on seasonal workers' visas in 2020.

The Government has also relaxed entry requirements for the sector in a bid to pull in more workers.

But delays in issuing visas and mistakenly rejecting visa applications that were valid has led to a backlog of arrivals.

In addition, Government proposals to increase the number of UK workers filling vacancies left by former EU workers who returned home during Covid has failed because there are plenty of other more 'desirable' jobs available for unemployed Britons.

The Government has relaxed the rules for seasonal farm workers, promising 10,000 extra visas and launching schemes to encourage more Britons to take up summer jobs picking crops.

But Mr Marks said the visas were not being issued fast enough to fill vacancies needed now and for the June and July peak season.

He said: 'It is going to be absolutely no use for somebody to say more labour is going to arrive in August and September.'

Visa processing has been slowed down by a shift in attention to Ukrainians fleeing their country following Russia's invasion.

A spokesman for the government department Defra which deals with the industry, said: 'We fully acknowledge the food and farming industry is facing labour challenges and we are continuing to work with the sector to mitigate them.

'We have given the industry greater certainty in accessing seasonal, migrant labour by extending the seasonal workers visa route until the end of 2024.

'This allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector, in addition to EU nationals living in the UK with settled or pre-settled status.'

The government is also 'working towards attracting UK workers to the sector.'

However Marks said the workforce was not there in the UK. He added: 'The notion is that somewhere in the UK there are hordes of hardworking people who want to come and pick fruit and veg. The reality is those people are not there.'

The warning comes as MP last month warned that chronic labour shortages in the food and farming sector could see food prices continue to rise.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report - devised by six Tory and four Labour MPs along with an SNP colleague - said as of August last year the sector had 'potentially in excess of 500,000 job vacancies'.

The report found evidence of pressure and shortages before the outbreak of war in Ukraine had caused the sector to experience 'even greater pressure' and said this was 'due principally to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic'.

And it said the Government 'must learn the lessons' from how it introduced temporary short-term visa schemes in autumn 2021, because the 'late announcement limited the sector's ability to take advantage of the visas'.

The report called on Ministers to review aspects of the Skilled Worker Visa scheme that 'act as barriers, including the English language requirement and the complexity and costs involved in a visa application'.

It said there must be an expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme and increase in the number of visas available by 10,000 this year - as well as making the scheme permanent and announcing visa numbers in future.

The release of the report comes after a torrid year for the industry that left nearly a quarter of the UK daffodil crop unpicked, fruit produce rotting in the fields and 35,000 pigs culled because of a lack of workers.

Source: Daily Mail