The NFU has revealed that the UK fruit and vegetable sector is this season experiencing its worst labour shortage on record.
Its latest surveys record a 34 per cent worker shortfall in July and a 22 per cent deficit in August, Tom Bradshaw, NFU vice president, told FPJ at the National Fruit Show in Kent on Wednesday (20 October).
“Where we are now is that apples are being unpicked, and also autumn raspberries are going unpicked because there isn’t available labour,” he said. “So, what we’re asking [government] for is the seasonal worker pilot to be made permanent and that it is extended.”
However, Bradshaw expressed concern that the Home Office is using NFU picker figures to support its stance that no more foreign seasonal labour is needed.
“We get asked time and again to provide more evidence [on worker shortages]. We can’t provide more evidence. And I just feel there’s a danger that the Home Office is using our evidence against us rather than to really try to support the industry,” he said.
Bradshaw explained that due to the government’s last-minute approval of the Seasonal Workers Pilot (some four months before the peak harvest started) and the drawn-out application procedure, not all 30,000 SWP visas granted by government have yet been processed.
Speaking on 20 October, he said two out of the three approved agencies had used all their visas. “I think 28,000 visas have been offered now. But because it takes eight weeks for visas to be issued, that lag means when the Home Office asked for the figures, it showed as 22,000 out of the 30,000 visas having been issued.
“I just can’t believe that the evidence is being used in the way it is. Because this is such a critical sector and it feels like it is being undermined unnecessarily.”
Where ideology meets reality
“When I look at the economy as a whole, we’ve got worker shortages everywhere,” Bradshaw continued. “Retail, hospitality, care, haulage, pickers, packers. And then we’ve got government saying we’re going to create 440,000 jobs with this new green strategy. Where are the workers coming from to do these roles? And are we turning our back on food security? I really think it’s a moment in time where we have to be challenging government and asking them what they want UK food production and supply to look like.
“When I see political insecurity around the world, and look at climate change, there has never been a worse time to switch off food supply in UK. And I just hope that the government are looking at it with rational eyes and not through an [Brexit] ideology.
“I genuinely believe our ministers in Defra understand the sector and the challenges, but they’ve got to influence wider government. Particularly on the immigration issue. It’s not within the gift of Defra to give us the solution.
“I’ve described it before as where ideology meets reality. I am a big believer that we need to stop looking backwards about [Brexit] decisions made five years ago and look at challenge in front of us today and put a solution in place to make sure business doesn’t suffer. If we continue look at it through the eyes of five years ago, then I think we’ll continue to fail business going forward.”
Commenting on the government’s call for higher wages for workers in UK agriculture, Bradshaw said: “We’ve seen huge wage inflation anyway. Forget this year. Before this year, we’ve seen over 35 per cent of wage inflation over past five years. If we look at this year in isolation wage inflation has been quite incredible.
“I think it’s a complete insult to the workers so crucial to getting food from farm to fork when the government talks about them as low-skill, low-wage. It’s so derogatory,” he said. “I thought through the Covid crisis we’d really valued the invisible in society. Whether that be the care workers, the NHS workers, whether that be people responsible for getting food to our plates. I thought they’d risen to the top and were recognised in value. When I hear them talked about by government as being unskilled I think it is a real insult.”
Bradshaw went on to talk about the need for cost inflation on a production level in the UK fruit and vegetable sector, and the need for this to pass through to retail.
“The power of retail at the moment is risk-crippling the sector,” he said. “There is no margin for reinvestment and with the inflationary pressures we are seeing, this has got to be passed on through the supply chain and there’s got to be opportunity to reinvest in this sector for the future.
“It’s a sector that has huge opportunity for growth but it really needs the support of government – not financial support, but support of govt to give an enabling policy so these businesses can afford to invest in future with confidence,” Bradshaw added.
“I hope we turn a corner and we get to that position where businesses can see what their future looks like. At the moment, we see a lot of people questioning their reinvestment because they don’t see a future at all.”