Without a functioning Seasonal Worker scheme the UK will ‘just export’ fresh produce growing, according to John Shropshire

Former G’s Fresh Group boss John Shropshire has called for a “major major sort-out” of the government’s Seasonal Worker scheme and criticised Whitehall’s recent handling of seasonal labour issues.

Shropshire – who is also leading an Independent Labour Review for the government – offered a withering insight into the labour crisis in a House of Lords Horticulture Sector Committee on Thursday. Without a functioning Seasonal Worker scheme “we will just export the industry, because it is easier”, he warned.

“We have got to have the scheme if we want to have a horticultural industry because British people want permanent jobs,” he said, speaking on behalf of G’s rather than the government – while pointing to how unattractive seasonal work was for UK workers.

He then added the idea British workers were “lazy” was “rubbish”, reinforcing how seasonal work was better suited to those with no ties that could travel across the country as the harvest season progressed. He pointed out issues attracting locally based seasonal workers were the same “everywhere else in the developed world”.

Germany, the US and New Zealand “all have a really good [seasonal worker] scheme, and we had a really good scheme in the [previous] Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme”, which ended in 2015, he said. The current framework for recruiting foreign workers was no longer adequate, he added.

Shropshire added that the lack of clarity around the scheme had put the industry “on the back foot” and opened it up to “abuse”. The scheme’s scope had been announced as late as March on one occasion in recent years, he pointed out.

He also criticised the government’s handling of the scheme in 2022 when the Russia/Ukraine war affected visas and seasonal worker supply.

“Most of the people were coming from Ukraine and they were all stopped from coming and then we had to switch to a whole host of countries, so the more countries involved the worse it is going to get because it is completely fragmented,” he said.

Top Defra boss accept shortfalls with seasonal worker calculations

He added that the government then took “up to six weeks to deal with the visa applications whereas our competition in Germany actually dealt with the visas in less than two weeks”, despite having eight times as many refugees to process at the same time.

Shropshire said that this inertia had led to the loss of at least £60m worth of UK crops last year, which then had to be imported from abroad.

As a result, fruit & veg imports were higher now than they had been in previous years, he said. This was likely to continue without improved labour supply as “it is not a problem to import”.

The Independent Labour review is still ongoing and according to Shropshire is seeking to highlight best practice on how to attract more staff to the sector, as “we are really not good at the moment and I am really troubled by this”.

When questioned on what the review would show, he said he couldn’t yet say as research was still underway.

He added, “I think I have probably said too much. I will be in trouble with my Defra team” – though he emphasised that he hadn’t “said anything today that I haven’t said before”.

“I think the current scheme could be fine but it just needs a few things, but we will see what comes out in the recommendations,” he clarified, before being thanked for his “candid” remarks by one member of the panel.