Source: Alamy 

 The first seasonal workers have arrived on UK farms with some coming from as far as Uzbekistan to pick produce

The majority of seasonal agricultural workers will be sourced from Asia this year due to the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine on the sector’s workforce.

The first tranche of non-European seasonal workers were expected “imminently” on UK farms, said Kent-based AG Recruitment – which is one of the four agencies licensed by the Home Office to recruit foreign workers under the government’s seasonal worker visa. Some growers have also noted on social media that these workers have already started arriving on farms.

AG Recruitment was recruiting from countries from as far away as Nepal, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, said AG account manager Kate Holland.

The business had attracted interest in seasonal job opportunities from these countries in previous years, but it had been hindered by a policy to only hire from countries where they had physical offices or staff present, she added.

But after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February – a situation that placed the horticulture sector’s seasonal worker plans in jeopardy for the 2022 season – the company decided to redeploy its network of recruiters to more further-flung locations in Asia. 

Last year, about two-thirds of the UK’s seasonal worker visas were issued to experienced Ukrainian workers, with Russia the second most recruited-from country, according to Home Office data.

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But with the fruit & veg sector now having to look further afield due to the war, it was inevitable the sector’s growers would need to factor in the lack of experience among its new cohort, suggested British Summer Fruits CEO Nick Marston.

“A returnee, or someone who has done it before, over a whole year, is about 30% more productive than a first timer,” Marston said.

“Growers were hoping, and expecting a significant proportion of the Ukrainians who came last year would return (and many had signed up to do so), but obviously an awful lot of them now won’t be available.”

As a result, there would be “a higher proportion of the workforce which will be inexperienced and less productive”, he noted.

“I think growers are concerned about the overall effect of delay through the course of the season and the lower productivity,” said Marston, who also pointed out lower productivity would require more staff in order to make up any shortfall – but that was something that “we won’t get as the numbers are very clearly defined [by the government]”.

However, some European hires are still taking place, with recruitment ongoing in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. Additionally, Ukrainians who were already in the UK on a seasonal worker visa at the outbreak of war have been able to extend their visas to stay in the UK and work.

Marston also pointed out that a “reasonable proportion” of the seasonal workforce had pre-settled status. These workers tended to arrive earlier in the season as they were not limited to six months of work as those on the seasonal worker visa were. 

The benefits to this group was that they were “all returnees so they are also productive and skilled”, he added.

Ukraine conflict expected to hit seasonal worker numbers

AG Recruitment said it had completed the “bulk of the early arrivals” recruitment of those with settled status from Ukraine by the time the ­invasion started on 24 February.

But the subsequent “re-recruitment” or replacement of workers – due to the return to their homeland of many Ukrainians or an absence of others no longer permitted to come to the UK due to martial law in Ukraine – did contribute to delays in sourcing staff, admitted Holland. 

There had been “a delay in that arrival process” of replacements, Marston agreed. “Hopefully it won’t be too serious,” he added, pointing to a “bit of a log jam on visas, as quite clearly the Home Office had to prioritise Ukrainian refugees and do the due diligence on them”.

The Home Office had assured scheme operators that they were “cracking on and that they are on top of that”, he added.

However, Marston stressed it was too soon to understand the full impact of the change in emphasis to more Asian workers, the fewer returnees available for this year’s harvest, and whether the sector would have enough staff.

The Seasonal Workers visa route was extended by Defra until 2024 in December, with farmers and growers having access to 30,000 visas and an additional 10,000 if required.

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