Brexit could result in fields of rotting crops if migrant workers stay away from UK farms
It is a quintessentially British scene: watching the annual Wimbledon tournament while munching on British strawberries and cream.
But farmers here are warning that fruit and vegetables - including their beloved strawberries - could be left to rot in the fields this summer because Eastern Europeans are reluctant to work on British farms following the Brexit vote.
Britain’s immigration policy will be one of the central themes of the upcoming Brexit negotiations, which are expected to last up to two years. And many industries that rely on foreign labour - from construction to cleaning - are anxious about continued access to migrant workers after Britain leaves the European Union.
But the agricultural industry says it is already struggling with a worker deficit.
A recent survey by the National Farmers Union (NFU), an industry lobby group, found that 47 per cent of the companies that provide agricultural labour said they did not have enough workers to meet demand between June and September of last year.
Britain’s horticulture sector is hugely reliant on its 80,000 seasonal workforce, the vast majority of whom come from Eastern Europe. The industry is calling on the government to introduce temporary work visas for foreign workers from countries outside the EU, such as Ukraine or Bosnia.
“Every strawberry at Wimbledon last year was picked by an Eastern European. If we don’t want shortages going forward, we need to get a new visa scheme sorted now,” said John Hardman, director of HOPs Labour Solutions, one of Britain’s largest recruiters of migrant farm labour.
Speaking from an airport in Romania, where he recruits many of the 12,000 seasonal workers his company helps to bring over from Eastern Europe, Hardman said that Britain is becoming a harder sell because of the devalued currency and perceptions of xenophobia.
After the vote last summer, there was a spike in anti-immigrant assaults and recruiters say that these kind of reports spread quickly among immigrant communities.
“It’s enough to have a few people that have bad experiences, and they put it on Facebook or Twitter, and it’s enough to push so many people away,” said Estera Amesz, co-founder of AG Recruitment, a British agency that recruits agricultural workers from the EU. She said that at their office in Romania, there are 40 per cent fewer people inquiring about jobs on British farms than this time last year.
Helen Whately, a British politician who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farming, said during a recent parliamentary debate on the subject that Britain risks losing out on foreign labour because foreigners are “feeling a lot less welcome” and because of the weaker pound - it is about 11 per cent down on the euro since the June 23 referendum.
“They do not have to come and work in the UK,” Whately said. “They are in demand across the whole European Union.”
Some say that more should be done to hire locals, including increasing wages. But farmers say that Britons cannot be enticed to pick plums and potatoes. It is not just that the work can be tough and low-paid, it is that the jobs are temporary and moving from farm to farm is an unappealing lifestyle for those wanting to plant roots in a community.
Britain has previously offered temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers but scrapped the programme three years ago after Bulgarians and Romanians were given full access to Britain’s labour market.
When asked if they would consider introducing a new work visa for seasonal agricultural work, Britain’s Home Office said in a statement that Britain “needs a fair and controlled immigration policy and that is exactly what this government will deliver.”
Not all Eastern Europeans have been dissuaded. Daniela Dragomir, a 33-year-old from Romania who has worked on British farms for seven seasons, says she is keen to return to the UK. “I like England, I like the system of English people,” she said.
But she said that friends are less enthusiastic, and some have deep concerns.
“Some people don’t want (to return) because of the impression that English people don’t want Romanians and Bulgarians to work for them.”