Migrant labour: an uncertain future?

UPDATE: Since this article was first published in our Summer 2018 edition of Field Talk, a new migrant farm worker visa scheme has been announced.

The strawberry plays a crucial role in the quintessential British summer. In 2017, 23 tonnes of strawberries, amounting to over 2 million individual berries, were served up during Wimbledon fortnight. To put that into context that's almost 60km of berries stretching from Wimbledon to Reading. Yet the future of British strawberries and the UK horticultural industry as a whole looks uncertain in light of the growing crisis that is the shortage of seasonal labour.

Historically, the UK horticultural industry has relied on Eastern European workers to come to the UK for the picking season. Many readers may not be aware that a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme ("SAWS") was introduced as long ago as 1945 to address post-war labour shortages. This scheme allowed fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to do short-term, low skill agricultural work such as fruit harvesting for a maximum of six months. This was extremely useful and beneficial to UK farmers but unfortunately SAWS was closed at the end of 2013.

The Brexit impact on labour

The numbers of migrant seasonal workers coming into the UK are now starting to dwindle. Concordia, a company which supplies around 10,000 workers to UK farms each year has stated that it could be short by 10% this year. Indeed Adam Macey, the visionary eco-farmer and strawberry grower in the BBC's radio soap opera, The Archers, recently experienced a labour crisis citing Brexit as the main reason and he is correct to a degree; the devaluation of sterling following the Referendum and the general uncertainty about the UK's immigration policy for seasonal workers following Brexit are primary factors underpinning the Eastern Europeans' misgivings.

Another Brexit-related issue compounding the situation is the increase in xenophobia in this country resulting in many migrant workers no longer feeling welcome. Avid Archers' fans will recall the unfortunate racial tensions which arose in Ambridge during last year's picking season which Adam clearly cites as another reason for his labour down-turn this year. A further contributing factor is that many Eastern European countries are now offering more opportunities than before which (when coupled with the increasing cost of flights to the UK) makes our country a far less attractive proposition.

A "compelling" case for a new scheme

In February, Michael Gove stated that there is a "compelling" case to introduce a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme in the UK following its departure from the EU but there have been no further announcements since. But even if such a scheme is brought in, will that be enough to ensure the steady and reliable flow of foreign flexible labour upon which so many businesses in the farming industry rely? Unless the situation with sterling improves, then the scheme may not necessarily provide the answer to the labour shortage. So what will?

The obvious answer is to recruit UK workers to do this work. However, despite some opponents of SAWS arguing that it denied UK workers opportunities, there appears to be little appetite amongst UK citizens to take on seasonal work as physically gruelling as fruit picking.

Agri-tech to the rescue?

Others may argue that agri-tech provides the answer to this conundrum. Yet whilst Brexit has given the research and development of technologies such as robots a fresh impetus and prototypes are being trialled with some success, experts predict that we are at still some years away from the development of a robot that can pick delicate soft fruits such as strawberries with the speed and delicacy of a human.

Regardless of whether the pickers are human or automaton, the problem is alarmingly simple; if there are not enough pickers then the fruits will be left to rot in the fields, resulting in lost revenue for growers and empty supermarket shelves. The reality of a strawberry-less Wimbledon could happen sooner than we think.

As with any aspect of Brexit, this is an evolving situation and one which we continue to watch carefully.

Originally published 6 September 2018

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