British berry industry could 'cease to exist' without European workers' scheme

  1. UK government warned repeatedly of farmer workers shortfall but hasn't implemented new labor plan
  2. Over 98 percent of the UK’s seasonal workforce are from the EU
  3. 'A [berry] punnet that costs £2 today will be £3 post-Brexit' unless a solution is found
  4. Near-full employment means UK workers can't fill seasonal jobs

Red berries, succulent and plentiful, are one of the joys of the British summer – ask anyone who has enjoyed the famous strawberries and cream at the Wimbledon tennis championships. However, they could be about to get more expensive, with strawberry prices potentially rising by more than one third (37 percent) if Brexit forces UK producers to relocate to within the European Union (EU) to ensure they have access to labor (The Guardian).  

It’s not just strawberries that could be affected. In 2017, a labor providers survey by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) reported there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural productionThe vast majority of horticultural crops grown in the UK are for a domestic market (AHDB), and therefore if farmers are forced to move abroad they will have to factor export costs into product pricing, as well as potentially tariffs, depending on the final Brexit deal and whether the UK decides to impose WTO tariffs on food imported outside the UK.

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According to the former chairman of British Summer Fruits (BSF) – the trade body which represents 97 percent of the country’s berry industry – the UK’s berry industry could be “crushed” by September without a seasonal scheme to allow European workers to fill demand on farms. With four months to go, there is no scheme in place and the new chairman Nick Marston said the UK government has given no firm sign of introducing one.

Vegetables and fruits have already rotted on British farms (Financial Times – may be behind paywall), and this is before the UK has even left the EU, which the British meat and horticulture industries also rely on for workers. What the UK’s migration arrangements will be post-Brexit are still unknown, but the current government wants to reduce net migration figures.

The UK used to have a seasonal scheme called the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to allow European workers to fill demand, including on farms. But the government ended its longest running migration scheme (academic study) in 2013, arguing that since European countries had joined the EU it was no longer needed, and that they wanted to open up jobs for British workers. It ended SAWS despite warnings from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee and farming organizations that this would lead to a labor shortage several years later. Then the unexpected happened – the British vote to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

Workers planting pumpkins at Poskitts farm in Goole, Britain May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Yates
Workers planting pumpkins at Poskitts farm in Goole, Britain May 23, 2016. Copyright: REUTERS/Andrew Yates

Without reinstating SAWS or a similar scheme, “the berry industry, effectively, will cease to exist,” Marston told WikiTribune. More than 98 percent of the UK’s 80,000 seasonal workforce come from EU countries (Financial Times) and around 69 percent of the staff working on UK meat plant floors are nationals of the EU27 countries, according to the British Meat Processors Association, which accounts for 80 percent of meat processed in the UK.

Britain used to be attractive

Prior to the EU referendum on Brexit, the UK was a very attractive place for seasonal workers, NFU Horticultural Board chair, Ali Capper, told WikiTribune.

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However, she said there’s been a drop in EU workers. The decline in the pound sterling since the 2016 UK vote to leave the EU (The Guardian), and improving economies elsewhere in Europe provide more appealing alternatives for migrant workers. Also, many workers no longer feel valued or even wanted in the UK.

Ali Capper (CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: NFU)
NFU Horticultural Board chair, Ali Capper, on her farm (CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: NFU)

Capper’s claims are backed up by a BSF report which said a UK parliament committee was told that Romanian workers, who account for a large percentage of the UK’s seasonal workers, were increasingly turning down UK work offers because they no longer felt welcome. The level of hate crimes reported one month after the EU referendum was 41 percent higher than the same month from the previous year, with most (79 percent) of these motivated by race hate.

“I made a mistake of allowing one of my long-standing members of staff from Poland to be interviewed by a couple of the national media. And he had some very unpleasant phone calls afterwards,” Capper said.

On Capper’s own farm in Herefordshire, most of her 20 Polish workers want to return for more work next year. However, because Brexit negotiations are unsettled she can’t even guarantee they can; this lack of confidence means growers are relocating their farms elsewhere.

The electorate “didn’t vote against immigration … they voted for control of immigration,” Capper said.

Consumers could pay one-third more

The BSF’s chairman Nick Marston said berry prices increasing is “absolutely inevitable” if there is a shortage of labor. “A punnet that costs £2 ($2.72) today will be £3 post-Brexit, if there is no [SAW] scheme in place.”

Price hikes wouldn’t be limited to fruit and vegetable produce. Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, told WikiTribune that Brexit could lead to more farmers going out of business. If this happens retailers will just import from somewhere else and the cost of meat, which has the highest WTO [World Trade Organization] tariffs, would go up “dramatically,” he said.

Chief Executive of the British Meat Packing Association, Nick Allen
Chief executive of the British Meat Packing Association, Nick Allen (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY-SA 4.0)

Even under a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, as well as a scenario where trade operated under WTO tariffs, UK food prices would rise, according to the NFU’s 2016 report.

If no deal is struck with the EU meat imported and exported between it and the UK would be subject to WTO rules, meaning tariffs of around 50 percent (Internal Market and Consumer Protection report).

Allen wonders if the government will see food go short and expensive, or just “quietly turn a blind eye” to meat coming in with lower standards. “Essentially we’d be exporting our welfare concerns, sort of shutting our eyes to it really … An animal is an animal, it shouldn’t matter where in the world it is.”

What about new FTA opportunities? About 80 percent of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU, according to a government report, and almost all of the UK’s trade is with countries with which the EU has already negotiated an FTA (government report).

Why not fill the jobs with British people?

The UK’s employment rate is the highest it has been since 1975, according to the UK’s ONS. More than 75 percent of the population, or 32 million people, were in work between December 2017 and April 2018 and unemployment stood at 4.2 percent. So there is not a big cohort looking for seasonal work.

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The BMPA’s Nick Allen said it’s a similar situation for the UK’s meat industry. “A lot of the areas where our [meat] plants are have got 2 percent unemployment, while even most economists would say 5 percent unemployment is pretty much full employment.” 

For every 10 British employees who come to work in an abattoir, Allen said only one will stay. According to a BMPA report, many meat processors undertake recruitment drives via local job centers or school career programs with very little success. “Few will turn up as agreed, very few will agree to start work and UK nationals failing to complete even a week’s work are depressingly familiar,” the report says. It also says that since the Brexit vote, Eville and Jones, which provides most of the official veterinarians in abattoirs, has had to advertise for the first time, which is notable as over 90 percent of UK official vets are from the EU27 countries.

The automation option

Migrant workers pick apples at Stocks Farm in Suckley, Britain October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh/File Photo
Migrant workers pick apples at Stocks Farm in Suckley, Britain October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh/File Photo

Allen said a lot of its members are looking at mechanization, but that is not a complete solution. “Pigs in blankets – little sausages wrapped in bacon – you try doing that with a machine.”

In the soft fruit industry, robotic picking is not an option for fruits such as raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, according to a BSF report. It says “extensive use on a commercial scale seems unlikely before 2020.” The UK is leaving the EU in 2019 but as part of its Brexit negotiations, is aiming to secure a two-year transition period, during which the EU says free movement of EU citizens would still exist. 

Will SAWs happen?

The UK’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, said there were “compelling arguments for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme” in February, and in March the country’s former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, promised to reintroduce SAWS (Financial Times), but there is no official confirmation and time is running out.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told WikiTribune as part of their statement: “We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.” The proposed transition period arrangement is due to end in December 2020, but this is not yet confirmed. As the EU’s December 2017 progress report said, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” (Financial Times).

And the BSF’s Nick Marston said the UK’s fruit industry will already be short of labor in 2018.

“Until I hear something positive from Number 10 Downing Street and the Home Office, who are the people who are the arbiters of this, I’m suffering from a fairly severe lack of confidence … if no scheme is put in place, the berry industry, effectively, will cease to exist.”

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