British farmers and growers are facing the “soul destroying” prospect of leaving more crops to rot in the fields unless a post-Brexit visa scheme for seasonal workers is announced soon.
Parts of the UK’s army of seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers have already started to look for jobs in other parts of the EU after receiving no firm assurances that they will still be welcome after Brexit.
The overwhelming majority of those who harvest our crops are eastern European – just 0.6% of the 85,000-strong workforce is British.
Romanians, Bulgarians and other eastern Europeans, who all pay taxes here in the UK, are a vital cog in how British produce gets from our fields to our shops.
For over a year now, British farmers and growers have been calling on the Home Office to promise to reintroduce a seasonal worker visa scheme after Brexit.
The last one was scrapped five years ago due to freedom of movement within the EU.
But the political impasse means recruiting from eastern Europe has become more difficult. Figures from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) show that the shortfall in seasonal workers is about 30%.
In the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, where the Chinn Family have harvested crops since the 1920s, harvest manager Elina Kostadinova explained: “They have families, they need to provide for them and they need security.
“We have lost people from last year… they have moved to other countries in the EU.”
Farmer Chris Chinn told Sky News he is a realist and not another Brexit “remoaner”.
In total, his business employs up to 1,000 seasonal workers and they have struggled to fill their positions this season.
Twice during their asparagus season they had to leave crops unpicked in the fields – something he describes as “soul destroying”.
He said: “Without staff we don’t harvest the crops, if we can’t harvest the crops we are going to stop planting the crops… that means that business disappears and that means those crops disappear from the supermarket shelves.”
While many of the seasonal pickers enjoy working and living in the UK for part of the year, they could easily find similar work elsewhere in the EU.
On the blueberry packing lines on the farm, technical supervisor Monica Sermas, from Romania, explained the work is the same in different countries. “It doesn’t matter for them [her colleagues] that much, they still want a job and that can be anywhere,” she said.
“They just want to know the future here.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.
“We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our EU negotiations, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our economic success.”