Lack of European workers scheme leaves fears berry industry will 'cease to exist'

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  1. Despite repeated warnings from farmers, UK government yet to implement a 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 to 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 championship. In 2015, the UK consumed 117,000 tons of strawberries and raspberries.

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

Vegetables and fruits are already rotting on British farms (FT – may be behind paywall), and this is before the UK has even left the European Union (EU), which the British meat and horticulture industry relies 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 known as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to allow European workers to fill demand but ended its longest running migration scheme (academic study) in 2013, despite warnings foretelling it would lead to a labor shortage several years later from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, as well as farming organizations. 

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

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 (between 2007–2013 the EU had 27 members), according to the British Meat Processors Association, which accounts for 80 percent of meat processed in the UK.

In 2017 the NFU’s labor providers survey reported there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural production.

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.

However, she says there’s been a drop in EU workers. The reasons are both social and financial, both Brexit-related. The decline in the pound sterling since the 2016 UK vote to leave the EU (The Guardian) means improving economies elsewhere in Europe now provide alternatives. But also, 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 own farm (CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: NFU)

Capper’s claims are backed up by a BSF report which says a UK parliament committee was told that Romanian 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 says.

On Capper’s own farm, most of her 20 Polish workers want to return for more work. However, because Brexit negotiations are unsettled she can’t even guarantee they can; this lack of confidence means growers are already disinvesting in the UK.

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

Consumers could pay one-third more

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

Price hikes wouldn’t be limited to fruit and vegetable produce. CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, Nick Allen, 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 says.

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 WTO scenario, 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.

The BMPA’s Nick Allen says 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 says 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 Brexit, Eville and Jones, which provides most of the official veterinarians in abattoirs, has had to advertise for the first time, which is concerning 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 says 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″ which would be too late, with the UK leaving the EU in 2019.

The CEO of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward,  says: “We’re probably looking at a five to 10 year horizon before we get commercially viable options.”

BSF’s Nick Marston says 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.”

And the UK’s meat industry isn’t seasonal, so even if a SAW scheme or a similar one is reinstated, this wouldn’t fully solve the problem.

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