Blame has been levelled at the Government’s abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2013, with an end-of-season horticulture report published by the National Farmers’ Union suggesting that one in three growers struggled to source seasonal labour last year.
Union leader Meurig Raymond fears the situation will only worsen, and that damage will be done to an industry which contributes £3bn to the UK economy, without some form of replacment scheme. He believes that seasonal influxes of international agricultural students could be the answer and has called on government to develop the idea.
In England, growers employ around 37,000 people but they rely on almost 41,000 extra seasonal workers each year to meet the demands for their fresh produce from British retailers at harvest times.
Almost a third (29 per cent) of growers surveyed by the NFU for its end of year report said they had labour problems last year.
NFU president Mr Raymond said: “The results of this survey are very worrying.
“Harvest seasons with insufficient seasonal labour lead to British crops remaining unpicked, businesses facing massive losses and retailers being forced to fill shelves with imported produce.
“Putting a new student scheme in place will attract young people who will bring skills that can help increase productivity in the UK. This will help avoid labour shortages and the potential consequences of higher food prices, increased imports and loss of full time jobs that seasonal work supports.”
The Pembrokeshire farmer said the union predicted that the industry would be dogged by labour problems when SAWS was abolished but that nothing had been done at government level to address this.
He said: “When SAWS ended, the NFU predicted it would lead to shortages in seasonal labour in horticulture as migrant workers move into other sectors of the economy. Our concerns were supported by the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee. These results show that, just two years after the removal of SAWS, growers are already experiencing major problems securing their supply of seasonal workers.”
Under the axed scheme, growers could employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania as seasonal workers for up to six months at a time - nationals from the two countries accounted for one-third of the seasonal workface in 2013. When the scheme was abolished, migrants from both countries were given wide access to the UK labour market, and the then Immigration Minister Mark Harper said there was a sufficient workforce within the UK and EU to meet growers’ needs. However, the NFU’s report suggests this it not the case, with many growers struggling to attract seasonal workers.