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Farmers ‘can’t rely on UK workers alone’, government warned

PUBLISHED: 14:04 05 November 2020 | UPDATED: 14:43 05 November 2020

UK workers still only made up 11% of the seasonal farm workforce this year, even after a widely-publicised government-led recruitment drive  Picture: JAMES FOSKETT

UK workers still only made up 11% of the seasonal farm workforce this year, even after a widely-publicised government-led recruitment drive Picture: JAMES FOSKETT

James Foskett Farms

A Suffolk vegetable grower warned his organic business “would finish overnight” if he had to rely on UK labour as the industry seeks clarity on how to source workers post-Brexit.

James Foskett wouldn't be able to continue with his organic operation without his overseas seasonal workforce  Picture: JAMES FOSKETTJames Foskett wouldn't be able to continue with his organic operation without his overseas seasonal workforce Picture: JAMES FOSKETT

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is calling on the government to explain how fruit, vegetable and flower growers in the UK will be able to recruit seasonal pickers next year.

Its industry-wide survey showed that despite the widely publicised Pick for Britain campaign, UK residents still made up only 11% of the workforce this year.

MORE – Grower hopes eastern Europeans laid off from other sectors may help to plug UK-wide hole in seasonal farm workforce

James Foskett — owner of Foskett Farms, near Woodbridge, which grows a range of crops including onions, potatoes, carrots and a range of organic produce — said this year the farm had welcomed between 5% and 10% casual seasonal workers from the UK at any one time.

“Some are quite good workers for going on graders or harvesters on hourly rates but no good for weeding or picking vegetables on piece rates because they can’t do enough in an hour to earn the minimum wage and so we have to make the wages up,” he said.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw is calling for government clarity on where farms can source seasonal labour post-Brexit  Picture: JOHN COTTLENFU vice president Tom Bradshaw is calling for government clarity on where farms can source seasonal labour post-Brexit Picture: JOHN COTTLE

“If we had to rely on UK workers our organic business would finish overnight. We just desperately hope we are given an allocation of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe either from the European Union (EU) or not.”

The NFU’s Horticulture Seasonal Worker Survey 2020 was completed by 244 horticultural growers recruiting more than 30,000 people — which equates to just under 50% of the workforce.

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NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw — who farms at Fordham, near Colchester — said workers from outside the Uk were “absolutely vital” to the horticultural sector especially as the industry had ambitions to grow more fruit and vegetables.

Seasonal workers hand weeding carrots at James Foskett Farms at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge  Picture: JAMES FOSKETTSeasonal workers hand weeding carrots at James Foskett Farms at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge Picture: JAMES FOSKETT

“We are at a critical time in recruitment for many growers. As freedom of movement ends on December 31, those growers of iconic British daffodils, asparagus, and soft fruits still don’t know where they will recruit experienced workers from.

“The Pick for Britain campaign was a great initiative, and many have suggested we could continue to recruit a domestic workforce for the coming 2021 season and beyond. While there was a fantastic response from Brits to the call for domestic workers this year in extraordinary circumstances, we see from the survey results that they only made up 11% of the workforce. Seasonal work on farm simply isn’t a viable solution for many.

“What we’re asking of them is huge. In reality it means people needing to work in very rural areas, away from their homes and families, where they will only have guaranteed work for between three and six months.”

The survey showed first-time UK resident workers stayed for nine and a half weeks on average, compared to just over 14 weeks for first-time non-UK workers and 18 weeks for returnee non-UK workers.

“Understandably, these workers continued to look for work closer to home, meaning many left farms part way through their contract and leaving growers having to re-recruit, which impacted on overall productivity levels and increased production costs.”

The situation was “easily solved” with the implementation of a seasonal worker scheme, building upon the pilot scheme that has already operated successfully for the past two seasons.

“If this is not in place by the beginning of the year, we would be the only developed country in the world without such a scheme. It would seem remarkable for the government to take such a gamble when it will hit UK businesses at a time when economic recovery is paramount. I call on government to act now, support our ambitions to lead a horticultural revolution in this country, growing the food that is so critical as part of a healthy diet, and ensure growers have an experienced workforce recruited in time to see this ambition become a reality.”


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