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Concerns come despite Defra extending its seasonal workers scheme until 2024

Growers are warning the fruit & veg sector’s labour woes will worsen this year, despite the extension of the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme to cover the next three years.

Defra announced in December that SAWS – which allows workers to come to the UK for up to six months to pick both edible and ornamental crops – would be extended until the end of 2024. There are 30,000 visas available for 2022, and that figure could increase by 10,000 if necessary.

However, the comparatively low amount of workers available via SAWS and the lateness of the announcement; coupled with a fall in both UK workers and returning EU nationals with settled or pre-settled status, meant the sector faced another season where it would be understaffed, warned NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper.

“The announcement of that three-year scheme, when compared to the needs of other parts of the food sector, was nothing short of a minor miracle,” she said. 

But the SAWS announcement “came too late for many daffodil growers, who had decided not to plant”, she said, and was still some way short of the sector’s stated need for 80,000 workers, with no indication of where they could come from.

EU nationals that arrived for work in 2021could do so for the first six months of the year without settled or pre-settled status, Capper pointed out. “This year is different, [outside of those on the SAWS scheme] they can only come if they have settled or pre-settled status, and we are already finding that some people are also being turned back [despite their eligibility] at the border due to confusion [over paperwork].”

Returnees with settled or pre-settled ­status from the EU were down 40% in 2021, “and growers are forecasting a similar fall in numbers this year”, Capper added.

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Domestic worker numbers were also down to 5% of the total workforce last year, compared with 12% in 2020, with no sign of growth in 2022.

Her comments follow warnings by the British Growers Association, first reported by The Grocer in December, that some growers had cut planted areas for 2022 by as much as a third due to worries around labour and rising on-farm costs.

The SAWS announcement was “too little, too late”, agreed Robin Walker, chair of grower co-op Berry Gardens, who said “the labour requirements of the soft fruit industry are not being met” by the scheme. 

This would result in “increased competition for people, across agriculture and horticulture, pushing up wages and costs in a tight margin industry and generating food inflation at a time when consumer’s pockets are already under pressure”.

“Costs are increasing, there’s no doubt in my mind, due to everyone competing for the same amount of people,” Capper said.

Capper also pointed to the increase in costs. “When you have a perishable crop that needs to be picked, you either face financial ruin if you can’t get it picked or you pay whatever the market rate is to get it picked – even if that means you don’t make a profit,” she said.

But given the expected shortfall of workers, even more growers were now rowing back on their plans, Capper added. “We’re now seeing a lot of evidence of big volumes of crop that are not going to be grown this year. There is a trend of growers either disinvesting in the UK or investing overseas. Why plant something if you can’t pick it?”

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