The farming industry told Sky News that labor shortages on UK farms have left tons of food unpurchased, costing millions of pounds and pushing food inflation up to 20 per cent.
Farmers say this year’s harvest has been affected by a total shortage of seasonal work visas issued by the Home Office, delays in processing those visas and a drop in the number of workers. Ukraine came to Britain after the Russian invasion.
Last year, more than 60% of seasonal visa holders came from Ukraine and 8% from Russia. This number has dwindled significantly as adult Ukrainian men have been unable to leave the country.
Sky News also spoke to Russians who said their visa applications were canceled without explanation from the recruitment agencies, although there is no clear ban on Russians working in the country. Older brother.
As a result of the labor squeeze, individual farmers have left hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops on the ground, and there are concerns about the industry’s ability to harvest adequately during the berry season. as well as the upcoming apple and pear season.
Derek Wilkinson, chief executive of Sandfield Farms, part of G’s fresh produce group, employs more than 750 foreign workers on its farm in Worcestershire.
He told Sky News that labor shortages, partly due to delays in visa processing, have cost his asparagus and spring onions farmed in Worcestershire around £250,000.
“If we don’t have people, we can’t harvest crops,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “We try to recruit locally and there are no people there. Brits don’t want to work seasonally, if you live in the UK you need a permanent job. We try to recruit but we don’t. I will get a lot of little absorption.”
It takes about six to seven weeks to process some visas, “which is ridiculous,” Mr Wilkinson said. “I tell growers in the Netherlands and Germany both do the same thing and they can get a visa in a few days, so I’m not sure why it took so long.”
“That means at the beginning of May we were 40% short of the people we should have been here. They’ve been employed but they haven’t had their visa processed yet.”
As a result, the company lost between 40 and 45,000 kilograms of asparagus worth about £150,000 and 750,000 bundles of scallions, worth around £100,000, Mr Wilkinson said.
The UK’s seasonal workforce has been shrinking since 2018 and the introduction of the post-Brexit seasonal work visa regime.
This is one of the only pathways for low-skilled, low-paid workers to enter the UK from abroad. Previously, most seasonal workers came from the European Union without restrictions.
In 2021, around 30,000 seasonal work visas have been offered. This year, 10,000 more have been issued, 8,000 of which are for horticulture and 2,000 to ease production problems in the poultry industry.
The government plans to reduce the number of seasonal worker visas available next year before phasing it out completely by 2024, aiming to target domestic workers and automation, including robot picking. fruit, fill the void.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) warns the plan is impractical and risks shrinking the horticulture industry as the government is proposing an expansion as part of a recently announced food strategy. .
Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, said: “We have a very low unemployment rate, we have 4% unemployment and millions of vacancies so it is not realistic to assign the workforce domestically. when there are so many fixed roles.”
Mr Bradshaw said: “The Migration Advisory Committee has determined that seasonal horticulture is unique and we should accept that. “We should be looking at the sector to allow it to grow the UK’s supply of fresh food and vegetables to our consumers, its a great success story, that’s what we can doing very well with our climate, but now we feel we have lost our hands behind our backs.”
Sir Robert Goodwill, Conservative Chairman of the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, told Sky News that seasonal labor plans should be maintained, given the uncertainty over supply. Labor can discourage investment.
“We want it to be a long-term plan. If you’re planting a vineyard or building a packhouse, you need to make sure you have the energy to do it in the future. This plan is so successful and there’s no reason they shouldn’t make it permanent.”
Despite great demand in the UK, Russian applicants have struggled to get visas. Ilshat Nizammev from the southern city of Ufa told Sky News that his visa had been canceled by the recruitment agency without explanation.
“I wanted to come but my visa was cancelled, and I heard 500 Russian visas were canceled just like me, so what can I do?” he say.
“Our company sent us a long email, it said sorry for this information, we support the Russians, we support the Ukrainians, but this year is difficult, we have never had this experience. We’ve never had so many people unable to get visas, we can’t do anything for you.”
The Interior Ministry denied that visas had been delayed, stressing that it was processing applications within a “standard of service” of eight weeks, but admission visas for Ukrainian refugees were given priority.
“We are processing seasonal work visa applications according to service standards and it is false to say that there is a delay in the issuance of those visas,” the spokesperson said.
The ready access to seasonal workers that the UK enjoys as a member of the European Union, especially since the accession of 10 mainly Eastern European countries in 2004, to some extent shaped agriculture.
The availability of workers makes labor-intensive crops like berries more viable and there has been huge growth in that market. The British Berry Growers’ Association said that expansion is now in doubt, with more than £36 million having been destroyed in 2021 because of failure to harvest.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, which studies international migration and policy, says tightening labor could change crops.
“In the long term, if there are fewer workers, we can expect the UK to return to a position a bit closer to where it was in the early 2000s, where we didn’t produce as much,” she said. labor-intensive products.
“In the short term, that could make it difficult for farmers who have built a business model based on the availability of a significant number of seasonal workers.”