Brexit has caused a “massive hole” in the numbers of people coming to the UK to pick fruit in the summer months putting growers “on the brink”, it is claimed.
The fruits of Brexit
Numbers of seasonal workers applying to work at one Kent-based company are down 90% in the last two years and there are fears for the future. Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms Ltd, said the labour market has got “tighter and tighter” over the last couple of years. He said the impact of Brexit on the flow of workers to UK farms is only getting worse. However, working conditions for fruit pickers have affected the recruitment of people from the UK to do the same work.
A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the government will “always back our farmers and growers” and ensure producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Taylor said:
95% of all fruit and produce picked and packaged in this country is done by eastern Europeans. From the end of June, people who haven’t got pre-settled status, at least, can’t work.
Read on...Support us and go ad-free
We are not talking about a few tens of thousands, we are talking hundreds of thousands of people less to work in the UK. That’s a massive hole.
Two years ago, Taylor’s company received about 20 applications a day from people wanting to come to the UK to work picking fruit, but this year it’s just two a day. He said:
We are right at the brink now
Taylor referenced the UK’s unemployment rate, which stood at 4.8% of over-16s for January to March. But he said it varies by region, and issues arose where British workers didn’t live in reach of farms. He said:
If we want the Brits to do that work they need to be mobile.
Get Britons picking?
In 2020, the government launched its ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign. Prospect summed up the issues with it, reporting:
5am starts, poverty wages and no running water—the grim reality of “picking for Britain”
One worker detailed their experience:
5am starts and 10-hour shifts leave little time for socialising. Our weeks are dominated by work. And it’s tough. Really tough. Being bent over picking fruit for most of the day puts huge strain on your body. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if we were adequately paid and properly housed. In reality, neither is true. The UK boasts the cheapest food in western Europe. My experience has made clear that this is only made possible through the neglect of employee welfare…
the notion that you can make good money through “piece work,” as has been asserted by both MPs and industry experts, is a fallacy. Unless you have significant prior experience, making anything above the minimum wage… highly unrealistic. After funds are deducted for rent and deposits, our salaries come to about £7 per hour. Furthermore, management’s conduct towards employees has been, at times, appalling. I’ve seen my colleagues berated, degraded and branded “stupid” by their superiors.
He also criticised the “politics” of the debate on seasonal workers coming from the EU. Taylor argued:
We are taking back control, as Boris would say, but when we are taking back control, we are actually deliberately throttling our own businesses because we know the thing we haven’t got control of is labour.
The solution is for the Government to recognise the fact that these people, they come and they go back home, so they don’t have any recourse to public funds.
Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said the soft fruit industry faces decreasing numbers of seasonal workers from the EU and the “impossibility of recruiting a significant proportion of our large workforce from UK residents”.
But he added:
Despite Brexit and restrictions on the free movement of workers, the industry has generally been able to recruit a large enough workforce for the current soft fruit season.
In short, we are confident that strawberries won’t be left in fields unpicked on any significant scale, although we can’t rule out pockets of issues on a few farms.
He welcomed the government’s decision to expand its Seasonal Agricultural Workers visa scheme.The scheme allows people to come to the UK for up to six months to do farm work. The government has expanded the scheme from 10k visas in 2020 to 30k for 2021.
A Defra spokesperson said:
Seasonal workers provide vital labour to ensure that local produce gets onto supermarket shelves.
We will always back our farmers and growers, and ensure that producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.
They also cited the department’s review into automation. They said the review will “pave the way for a pioneering and efficient future” for fruit and vegetable growers.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?