By Peter McLaren-Kennedy • 05 July 2022 • 9:57
Crops valued at £36m destroyed as labour shortages hit UK farmers
According to Sky News on July 5, farmers are facing millions of pounds of losses after the seasonal worker visa granted by the Home Office fails to deliver sufficient numbers of workers.
According to farmers spoken to by Sky News, visa processing delays and a collapse in the number of Ukrainian workers coming to the UK after the Russian invasion have resulted in a shortage of workers. Added to that Russians who had been granted visas, have since had them cancelled.
According to those agencies recruiting workers from Russia, no reason was given for the cancellation despite there being no ban on Russian workers taking up seasonal jobs.
Figures provided by the Home Office show that the 60 per cent of the workers given seasonal visas were from Ukraine, while eight per cent were from Russia.
The war in Ukraine has meant the numbers of applicants from the country has all but dried up, and with countries in Europe having an open door policy for those fleeing the conflict most have chosen to relocate elsewhere on the continent.
Sandfield Farms Managing Director Derek Wilkinson, told Sky News that labour shortages had already cost around £250,000 of his asparagus and spring onion crop. The company which employs 750 seasonal workers said that the lack of demand for the jobs and visa issuing delays had resulted in them being unable to hire sufficient workers.
Visas are taking around six to seven weeks to be issued according to Sandfield Farms.
Wilkinson said: “It’s ridiculous, if we haven’t got the people we simply can’t harvest the crop.
“We try to recruit locally and there just aren’t the people out there. British people just don’t want seasonal work, if you live in the UK you need a permanent job. We do try to recruit but we’d get very little uptake.”
By comparison he said: “I speak to growers in Holland and Germany all doing the same thing and they can get a visa processed in a few days, so I’m not sure why it takes so long.
“That meant at the beginning of May, we were 40 per cent short of people we should have here. They were recruited but they just hadn’t had the visas processed.”
He added that as a result the company had already lost around 45,000 kilograms of asparagus valued at around £150,000 (€174,375), and 750,000 bunches of spring onions worth nearly £100,000 (€116,000).
The number of seasonal workers coming to the UK has steadily fallen since the introduction of the BREXIT seasonal worker regime in 2018. Prior to its BREXIT and its introduction, EU workers were free to travel and take up the available work.
Despite the shortages of labour the government wants to phase the visa out altogether by 2024, instead opting to encourage automation and local employment.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has warned that the government’s plans are unrealistic. Tom Bradshaw, Deputy President of the NFU, said: “We have a very low level of unemployment, we have 4 per cent unemployed and millions of vacancies so it is unrealistic for it to be delivered from the domestic workforce when there are plenty of permanent roles.”
He added that: “The Migration Advisory Committee identified that seasonal horticulture is unique and we should embrace that.
“We should look to the sector to enable it to grow deliver fresh British food and vegetables to our consumers, its a wonderful success story, it’s something we can do really well with our climate, but at the moment we feel we have our hands tied behind our back.”
Sir Robert Goodwill, the Conservative chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, agrees telling Sky News the seasonal worker scheme should remain.
Citing concerns and uncertainty over labour supply could prevent investment by the industry further adding to contractions already being seen in some parts of the farming sector.
“We want it to be a permanent scheme. If you’re planting a vineyard or building a packhouse you need to be sure that you have labour to come and do that work into the future. The scheme is very successful and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t make it permanent.”
The Home Office denies that visa applications have been delayed acknowledging that priority is being given to Ukrainian applications, but insisted it was still meeting the “service standard” of eight weeks.
A spokesperson said: “We are processing straightforward applications for seasonal worker visas within service standard and it is wrong to say that there are delays in issuing those visas.”
The British Berry Growers Association said that the ready availability of seasonal workers prior to BREXIT, made many more agricultural sectors viable. However the lack of workers now puts many of these in doubt including the growing of berries.
They put the value of crops destroyed in 2021 at more than £36m (€41,9m) worth of crop because they could not be harvested.
Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that labour shortages could significantly change the types of crops grown in the UK.
She said: “In the long run, if there are fewer workers available we might expect the UK to return to a position a little closer to how it was in the early 2000s where we weren’t producing as much labour-intensive produce.
“In the short run that can be quite disruptive for farmers who have built a business model that relies on the availability of a substantial number of seasonal workers.”
The total losses to Britain’s farming industry are not known but must run into hundreds of millions if just one sector, berry growers are reporting losses of more than £36m (€41,9m) due to labour shortages.
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Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news.
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