Brexit uncertainty is already leading to “critical” seasonal labour shortages on British farms, as the number of foreign workers employed to harvest fruit and vegetable crops has fallen by 17 per cent, a new survey has revealed.
The study by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) found that there were more than 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May, during what was a busy harvesting period.
The NFU is calling on the Government and newly appointed Environment Secretary Michael Gove to give reassurances to growers that there will be clarity on how farms will access a reliable and competence workforce, both in the short-term and post-Brexit.
Ali Capper, the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board chairman, said: “A lack of clarity regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU and a weakened sterling has contributed to the reduction in workers on farm now being reported by labour providers who source seasonal workers.
“Farmers and growers need to know how the Government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers and the NFU is calling for reassurance farmers will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce both now and in the future.
“Without that, this trend is likely to continue and at this stage in the season any further tightening in the workforce will hit hard on farms.”
The survey, covering the period January to May this year, shows the number of labour providers unable to meet the requirements of the farms they supplied rose four-fold.
The proportion of returning labourers also dropped significantly during the start of the year, falling from 65 per cent to 33 per cent.
Mrs Capper said: “Returnees are absolutely vital. Their past experience and technical ability makes them so valuable and losing them is a big concern.
“This robust survey represents 30 per cent of the total seasonal workforce and it is crucial Government understands the importance of seasonal workers to an industry that provides the raw ingredients to feed the nation.”
Ross Murray, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said the government’s new immigration bill was a chance for government to provide clarity on how it will ensure businesses across the rural economy have access to the workers that they need.