Author : Adam Lusher
The Government seems so “hamstrung by dogma” around Brexit and immigration that it is failing to act decisively to ensure Britain’s fruit farmers will get the supply of foreign workers they need to survive, it has been suggested.
Nick Marston, chairman of producers’ organisation British Summer Fruits (BSF), said the resulting uncertainty had left his members “extremely worried” about Brexit.
Mr Marston, representing producers who supply 97 per cent of the homegrown strawberries and other berries sold in UK supermarkets, said the government had to act now on the issue of foreign seasonal fruit pickers because British farmers were already in the grip of a labour shortage.
A survey of the BSF membership, published on Tuesday, found that nearly all of them (96 per cent) have had trouble finding enough seasonal workers and 63 per cent expected the labour shortage to be even worse next year.
In a possible irony given Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Mr Marston told The Independent that the labour shortage had been created mainly by the economic success of east European nations that joined the union in 2007.
Romania, for example, is now experiencing 25-year record lows in unemployment, meaning far fewer people needed to seek seasonal fruit picking work in Britain.
But, he said, Theresa May’s government had yet to recognise the need for permits to attract temporary farm labourers from outside Europe, and was proving slow in publishing details of a post-Brexit seasonal agricultural workers scheme for EU nationals.
“I wonder whether at the moment they are not almost hamstrung by the dogma of Brexit and the need to reduce net migration,” Mr Marston said. “This isn’t about net migration. It is about people who would come here, work, and then go home on a strictly controlled permit scheme.
“But at the moment, perhaps, it has almost been conflated with net migration in the minds of Number 10.
“Quite frankly, at the moment, our growers are extremely worried about Brexit, and all their concerns revolve around the availability of labour.”
By comparison, he said, “Several European countries which have big horticultural industries, including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Poland, have already introduced a seasonal agricultural workers permit scheme for non-EU nationals.
“For instance the Germans this year have 60,000 permits for Ukrainians to go and work in Germany.
“But there doesn’t seem to be any immediate recognition [from the UK government] of a need for a scheme for non-EU nationals of the kind that competing nations already have in place.”
“What we are pressing the government for,” he added, “Is a level playing field with competing berry growers across Europe.”