Fresh produce left rotting as migrant workers vote to leave the UK

16 February, 2018
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

The uncertainty over Brexit, and in particular the UK’s stance over immigration, is impacting on the supply of seasonal migrant labour to fresh produce farms, resulting in financial losses, food waste, and disinvestment in UK agriculture.

During September 2017, UK farmers reported a shortfall in labour of up to 29% which, for apple grower Stocks Farm, resulted in a monthly loss of £30,000. By comparison, in May 2016 – prior to the Brexit referendum – there was a shortage in labour of 4%. Seasonal job vacancies are on the rise for 2018 and farmers across the country predict that they will be unable to cope with harvesting and production demands.

According to the director of a major agricultural recruitment company, the shortfall in seasonal workers is due to Brexit. The government’s decision to leave the European Union, and its pledge to reduce immigration, has caused migrant workers to perceive the UK as “racist” and “xenophobic”. The effect is exacerbated by the weak pound, making earnings in the UK less attractive to eastern Europeans.

The UK is heavily dependant on foreign fruit pickers. Of the 80,000 seasonal workers required by producers in the UK, more than 99% are recruited from Eastern Europe. Low unemployment rates and a desire to have long term employment contracts mean that it is difficult for farmers to employ domestic workers.

Facing uncertainty over the labour supply and as a result incurring extra costs, some companies have been forced to move production overseas. For example, Haygrove farm – one of the UK’s largest growers of berries with a turnover of £101m – has relocated its raspberry and blueberry production to China because of a 20% fall in demand for seasonal jobs.

In response to the labour pressures, the National Farmers Union has urged the government to reinstate a seasonal agricultural workers scheme (“SAWS”) which would help sustain a regular source of seasonal workers entering the UK. However, the government is reluctant to commit to such a scheme, citing a lack of evidence of any issue and the need to prioritise Brexit negotiations.

Businesses relying on migrant workers should keep an eye out for the government’s immigration policy expected later this year which will hopefully address some areas of concern. However, this remains to be seen and alongside eastern Europeans’ alleged perceptions’ of racism in the UK, businesses may need to consider alternative commercial decisions to mitigate short and long term damage.