UK farmers are in dire need of thousands of foreign workers to gear up for next year's harvest. Despite a high profile campaign from the National Farmers Union, figures reveal that only 11% of its 2020 roster of seasonal workers were UK residents. The NFU is seeking government assurances on labour supply next year after the Brexit transition period comes to an end.
The "Pick for Britain" labour campaign launched during the summer comes after the Horticultural Seasonal Worker Survey showed the number of workers is not enough to sustain the industry. The survey covered 244 growers that recruit more than 30,000 people that covers nearly half of the typical workforce required.
The average vegetable farmer employs about 150 seasonal workers during harvest season.
As Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic continue to pose challenges for farmers, the need for more local workers has posed rising concerns on labour supply and new immigration policies. Although some were able to recruit local British pickers, most have left at the end of the season to prepare for university.
The government-backed campaign "Pick For Britain" showed a good response and a huge initial interest from locals. However, John Hardman of Hops Labour Solutions, one of UK's biggest recruiters, said from the 30,000 applications they received from Britons, only 4% actually took up the jobs and only 1% stayed past the initial six weeks.
Hardman explained that many domestic workers seem to have an unrealistic "Darling Buds of May" view of working the land.
"It's hard physical labour. There is very little appetite in the domestic labour market for seasonal agricultural work because of the nature of the work. "
"To be honest, EU citizens and those keen to work here are far more productive than the domestic labour force," he adds.
Normally, at this time of the year, HOPS would be initiating the process of recruiting overseas workers for next summer. But with the current situation, it has stopped recruitment until it has a clearer understanding of the government's plans, the BBC wrote.
"It's like selling off an empty shelf. We are suspending recruiting people from Romania and Bulgaria for 2021 purely based on uncertainty," Hardman said.
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said it is a critical time in recruitment for many growers as they still don't know where to recruit experienced workers from when the freedom of movement ends on December 31.