worker picking veg farming

The fruit & veg sector’s difficulties attracting and retaining labour extend much further than Brexit-related problems around a seasonal workforce, the British Growers Association has warned.

New research published by the BGA this week suggested the industry needed a year-round supply of labour, said CEO Jack Ward. A lack of action from the government over labour could see crops left unharvested, he said.

The term “seasonal labour” was a misnomer when it came to describing overall demand across the fruit & veg sector, Ward added, with the survey highlighted that produce such as cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, mushrooms and tomatoes needed to be harvested throughout the year.

“When you see the demand for labour across the fresh produce industry laid out like this, it makes you realise that there are many parts of the industry which need labour all year around,” Ward said. “If there is not a readily available supply, then we are going to have real problems growing, harvesting and packing many crops.”

Ward suggested the advent of the national living wage was also adding to problems in growers retaining staff. Many workers were reaching the threshold for non-taxable income quicker than before, “in which case they go home, leaving employers with severe staff shortages”, he added.

The devaluation of sterling has also contributed, as employers offer higher wages to attract labour, meaning the earnings limit is hit even earlier.

“Increasingly there are parts of the industry where we face the very real threat that crops could be left in the field because there is no one to harvest or pack them,” added Ward.

It comes as the NFU responded to the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome in a statement emphasising that access to workers would be severely curtailed.

“Farmers and growers are fast running out of patience with both parties over the Article 50 negotiations,” said NFU president Meurig Raymond.

“The time has come for both the UK and EU governments to acknowledge that businesses and individuals across Europe will suffer if a deal securing an ongoing and closely-integrated economic relationship is not reached.

“Many farm sectors are already struggling to fill job vacancies in the wake of the referendum vote, and further reduction in people available would see a corresponding reduction in investment in the industry, at a time when we are at one with the government’s desire to see growth in both productivity and output in our sector.”