Shortage of farm workers becoming 'serious problem' as Government is urged to take action

Food supply issues could get much worse in the run up to Christmas as farms struggle with a severe post-Brexit labour shortage, an organisation which represents farmers across the North has warned.

Lucinda Douglas, director of the Country, Land and Business Association’s northern region

Lucinda Douglas, director of the Country, Land and Business Association’s (CLA) northern region, said it is becoming a “serious problem” and the Government needs to review its immigration policies as foreign seasonal workers are needed to alleviate the current shortage.

“If we don't do this now, we are going to be looking at increasing costs, serious issues in terms of product supply and supermarkets with more empty shelves,” she said.

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“The Government is not appreciating and taking on board how serious this problem is and how serious it is potentially going to become in the run up to Christmas.

A seasonal worker from Romania moves trays of selected strawberries at BR Brooks & Son farm

“It needs to be reviewed and addressed now, not tomorrow.”

She added: “We need a flexible scheme to allow people to come in from the EU and elsewhere. All of the applications will obviously have to be assessed, but we do need access to that labour.”

Last year, the National Farmers Union said 80,000 seasonal workers were needed to work for the UK’s horticultural businesses, but when the Government extended the Seasonal Workers Pilot in December 2020 it only offered 30,000 visas for people looking to take on jobs in the sector.

The union is now calling on the Government to make that scheme permanent and expand it.

It is also urging the Government to conduct an urgent review of the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming sector and introduce 12-month Covid-19 recovery visas for migrant workers.

The new points-based immigration looks to discourage applications from people who are deemed to be “low skilled” and the Government believes this will stop companies from relying on cheap labour and create more jobs for British people.

But short-staffed farmers claim they need more migrant workers now, to harvest their crops and process meat.

“They have this ideological view that we are going to be able to fill the gap in the labour market with our own domestic employees, well that just hasn't happened," said Ms Douglas.

“We have very low unemployment at the moment and there is not enough people to fill those jobs.

“I speak to some people who are huge employers in the horticultural sector and they engage with their local recruitment companies. They are struggling to find people for the jobs, they can't find the people out there that are either available or willing to do the work, because it's perceived as low grade work.

“There's a whole piece of work that needs to be done on actually changing the mindset and people's perspective of that type of work in agricultural industry.

“That’s not going to be fixed at the drop of a hat, it’s going to take time.”

A Government spokesman said it is working with businesses to understand the permanent and seasonal workforce requirements, but employers should "make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad".