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Seasonal worker shortages have been reported of up to 75% around the UK, as producers struggle to supply produce to retailers. This is raising fears that produce will be left to rot in the ground as there is not enough labour to harvest it.
As Carolyn Coxe, horticultural advisor at Soil Association explained, "Seasonal worker shortages and rising energy costs have meant that many of our licensees have re-evaluated their cropping plans by reducing the overall volume to mitigate financial risk or reduce the amount of crop grown at the shoulders of the season where gas and electricity are utilised to a greater extent and the cost of production is higher.
“This is likely to lead to a shorter UK growing season and greater reliance on imports."
Industry figures are reportedly particularly concerned about the upcoming two-week period, when tenderstem broccoli and courgettes are due to come into season.
According to The Grocer, the shortages have been driven by delays in the processing of visas, leaving some producers with just 25% of the workers they had originally booked in for the harvest season.
"There is a large demand for those accessing the Ukrainian Visa application process and therefore there are significant delays in visa approvals and the industry is seeing a delay in seasonal workers able to come to work", Carolyn added.
In addition, Government schemes to increase the number of UK workers filling vacancies left by former EU workers have failed because as unemployment rates fall, there are plenty of other more ‘desirable’ jobs available for the country’s out-of-work population.
The impact of the Ukraine war
Another culprit for the seasonal worker shortage is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as in recent years Ukraine has emerged as a major exporter of seasonal workers in the UK, amounting to 67% of the total workforce.
Last year, the top exporters of seasonal workers were Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Bulgaria, most of which are either involved in or could be involved in the conflict.
As harvest season approaches, Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 years of age have signed up for the army to defend the country against Russian attacks, so British farmers are unlikely to see many Ukrainians heading over to support their harvests.
Ukrainians already in the UK for work have had their seasonal visas automatically extended until the end of 2022, but many are returning to Ukraine to fight in the war and it is unknown how many remain in Britain.
This could impact the cost-of-living crisis as farmers lean on the more expensive and perhaps less skilled UK workforce to plug the gap, according to Carolyn.
"It will be a testing few weeks to see if we are able to get the workforce in place in time for the peak production period, she explained. “With less returnees coming into the UK to work for the main season and of course fewer able to come from Ukraine, we are likely to see a less skilled workforce and this, in turn, increases cost of production whilst training is undertaken."
Responding to the shortages
This news of seasonal shortages comes as farms enter peak season for harvest, with June and July set to be the busiest period for farmers and producers.
In response to calls for the government to help farmers deal with the labour shortages, a Defra spokesman commented, “We fully acknowledge the food and farming industry is facing labour challenges and we are continuing to work with the sector to mitigate them.
“We have given the industry greater certainty in accessing seasonal, migrant labour by extending the seasonal workers’ visa route until the end of 2024. This allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector, in addition to EU nationals living in the UK with settled or pre-settled status. [The government] is working towards attracting UK workers to the sector.”
Vicki Hird, sustainable farming campaign coordinator at Sustain, argues the government should be going even further. “The disaster looming in seasonal worker availability for crop picking could bring misery for both farmers and consumers.
“But it is not a surprise and needs urgent attention both to address admin and visa blockages but also the deeper issues of low produce prices and harsh market demands which make the work unattractive to UK workers.”