Britain’s strawberries may wither on lack of foreign pickers

UK trade body says government inaction and weak sterling leading to shortage of seasonal workers

UK farmers have already raised fruit-pickers’ pay in an attempt to counteract sterling weakness. Photograph: iStock

UK farmers have already raised fruit-pickers’ pay in an attempt to counteract sterling weakness. Photograph: iStock

 

Strawberry and other soft fruit farmers in Britain are warning of potential shortages because they are struggling to find enough workers to pick fruit.

The British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade body said its members were 10 per cent to 15 per cent short of labour and expect to be more than 30 per cent short by the autumn as the UK government drags its feet on a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

Nick Marston, the BSF chairman, said: “The industry is now threatened by lack of government action with regard to seasonal labour.”

He said more than three-quarters of British berry-growers were already scaling back production and trimming investment plans amid fears that fruit would be left rotting in the fields.

“Any fall in home-grown production not only increases our dependence on imported fruit but will inevitably lead to significant price rises,” Mr Marston said.

UK farmers have already raised the pay of pickers to more than £10 (€11.38) an hour to try to attract EU workers after the fall of sterling against the euro reduced the value of their take-home pay.

But they are also suffering labour shortages caused by a fall in the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers looking for work abroad because they now have better job prospects at home.

Other EU countries, such as Germany, have tackled the problem with visa schemes that enable Ukrainians, Moldovans and other non-EU nationals to do seasonal work.

Visa system

But Mr Marston said the British government had not fulfilled its promise to do the same in the short term and there was still no clarity on a visa system for EU workers after Brexit.

“While this is not an issue caused directly by Brexit, solutions are being hamstrung by Brexit and the government’s inability to make firm decisions,” he said.

Mr Marston said he believed progress was being blocked by No 10. “We urge the prime minister to do what she knows is the right thing,” he said.

A spokesman for the UK department for environment, food and rural affairs said: “We are working hard to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU. “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.” – Guardian service