The former Chairman of British Summer Fruits (BSA) – an organisation representing 97 percent of the UK berry industry – said “we need The Home Office to understand that we must have a scheme in place by the very latest September 2018 in order for us to recruit for the 2019 season”, as cited in this BSA report. “Without it, an incredibly successful soft fruit industry, which contributes millions of pounds to the UK economy, will be crushed.”
There is still no seasonal agricultural scheme in place, and the new Chairman of BSA, Nick Marston, says the UK government haven’t given positive signs of introducing one.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was the UK’s longest running migration scheme (academic study), and allowed European migrants to fill seasonal agricultural jobs, until it ended in 2013. This was despite warnings from the National Farmers Union (NFU), the British Growers Association and a report by the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, that ending the scheme would lead to a labor shortage several years later. Then the UK vote for Brexit happened, and UK farmers’ future has been left more uncertain.
British horticulture alone (fruits, vegetables, flowers) relies on EU workers for more than 98 per cent of its 80,000 seasonal workforce, according to the Financial Times and around 69 percent of staff working on UK meat plant floors are from the EU27 countries, according to the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which represents about 80 percent of the meat produced in the UK.
And before the UK has even left the European Union, (The UK has formally declared it’s leaving the EU but it will not do so until March 2019) the NFU’s labor providers survey reports there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural production in 2017. It also revealed that in September the number of workers returning to work on farms, fell to 16 percent. This is in comparison to January, when 65 percent of workers were returning.
The chairman of the NFU Horticultural Board, Ali Capper, says that “prior to the referendum, we were a very attractive place to come for seasonal work”. However, this drop in the number of EU workers coming to the UK has been caused by the decline in the UK currency, since the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, workers no longer feeling valued and improving economies in the rest of Europe, with Germany introducing its first minimum wage in 2014, she says.
A BSA report says the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told Romanian workers are increasingly turning down UK work offers because they say they no longer feel welcome and the level of hate crimes reported in the UK July 2016, one month after the EU referendum, was 41 percent higher than in July 2015.
Capper says “Because of my role with the NFU, 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.”
On her own farm, where she has a team of 20 Polish workers wanting to return next year, she says political uncertainty means she can’t even guarantee whether they will be able to. Capper says growers are already disinvesting in the UK and “if we haven’t got the workers to pick the fruit and veg, we will see fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields.”
Marston says “There is already a significant shortage of staff [in the soft fruits industry] and the concern is that will be worse next year.”
Why should the UK consumer care about a lack of EU workers?
Well, because their food will have lower standards and a higher cost.
Marston says if there is a shortage of labor, the prospect of berry prices increasing is “absolutely inevitable.” “A punnet that costs £2 today will be £3 post-Brexit, if there is no scheme in place.”
Other European countries already have permit schemes to allow people to come from outside the EU, on top of access to European labor, which the UK may no longer have in the future.
Capper says “Portugal are bringing in people from China to pick fruit and veg; Spain are bringing in young people from Morocco to pick their fruit and veg; Poland are bringing in people from the Ukraine; Germany setup a scheme in 2017 to bring in Ukrainians … almost every [EU] country offers some sort of visa or permit scheme.”
And price hikes wouldn’t be limited to fruit and vegetable produce either. Chief Executive of the BMPA, Nick Allen, says if there’s a lack of EU labor “Demand will drop, so the farm gate price will drop, so more farmers will go out of business.” He says if this happens retailers will just import from somewhere else and “meat has the highest WTO tariffs of anything, so the cost of any imported meat will go up dramatically.”
If no deal is struck with the European Union, meat imported and exported between the EU and UK would be done so on World Trading Organisation rules, meaning huge tariffs both ways – 50 percent plus. Allen says “What’s the government gonna do? See food go short and go expensive, or just quietly turn a blind eye to meat coming in with a lower standard, really? It would be a shame because 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. It should still be treated to a high welfare standard.”
Even under a free trade arrangement with the EU, (as well as a WTO scenario), UK food prices would rise, according to the NFU’s 2016 report.
What about new free trade deal (FTA) opportunities? About 80 percent of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU, according to a UK government report and of UK trade “94 percent of imports and 97 percent of exports (government report) are with countries with which the EU has negotiated an FTA.”
On top of this, Capper says if food produced in UK is replaced with imports “the standards will be lower, the nutritional value will be much lower and the cost will be much higher.”
Why not fill the jobs with British people?
It was announced in September that the UK’s employment rate is the highest it has been since records began in 1971 (government press release), with 75.3 percent of the population (32.14 million people) in work.
And roughly three quarters of the 4.5 percent registered unemployed, claim disability or are single parent benefits, “which suggests they may not be able, or willing, to undertake physically demanding seasonal work” according to a BSA report.
Capper says that on her own farm, she took 70 seasonal workers this year, of which two were British. And that’s been the norm for the past 15 years.
In many rural areas, where the most demand for seasonal labor is, unemployment is below two percent. Chief Executive of the British Growers Association, an organisation representing horticultural growers, says “If you looked at the numbers of unemployed in Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk, Norfolk, you would be in the hundreds, and yet the demand for labor [there] is in the thousands.”
It’s a similar situation for the UK’s meat industry. Allen says “a lot of the areas where our plants are have got two percent unemployment while even most economists would say five percent unemployment is pretty much full employment.”
And for every 10 British employees, Allen says only one will stay. According to a BMPA report, “Many meat processors undertake recruitment drives at local job centres or via school career programmes, but with very little success. Of people who say they are interested in working in a plant, 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 also says that “Eville and Jones, which provides most of the official vets in abattoirs, have had to advertise for the first time ever (over 90 percent of the official vets in the UK are from the EU27 countries).
Is automation an option?
Allen says “a lot of our members are looking at mechanization, but you can only take it so far … The classic this time of year is 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 BSA report. It says, “Extensive use on a commercial scale seems unlikely before 2020. [The UK is leaving the EU in 2019].”
Capper says, “whilst there is a robotic arm that will pick an apple, it doesn’t sit on a machine that can travel up and down an orchard. And, it’s still very slow.”
Chief Executive of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward, doesn’t think the shortfall in agricultural jobs can be replaced by automation in the short term. He says “We’re probably looking at a five to 10 year horizon before we get commercially viable options.”
So will SAWS or a similar scheme happen?
Marston says the UK’s fruit industry will already be short of labor in 2018 and that “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.”
Others are more positive. Allen says that without UK access to European labor the UK ‘s meat industry will “shrink” but that he is increasingly confident this won’t happen. “Increasingly, politicians almost open their conversation with, ‘Yeah, we’ve got the message, you want labor, we understand it.'”
However, the UK’s meat industry isn’t seasonal, so even if SAWS is reinstated, this wouldn’t fully solve the problem. Under this scheme, 98 percent of workers returned home at the end of the season, according to the Financial Times . While this is trouble for Allen, it is likely to please Brexit voters, as these seasonal workers are here for less than a year, so do not count towards net migration figures.
Capper says it’s her belief that when the electorate voted for Brexit “they voted for control of immigration. They didn’t vote against immigration.”