The UK seasonal worker crisis is likely to be exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict putting increased costs and pressure on farmers.
Home Office data shows that two thirds of the UK’s Seasonal Worker visas issued in 2021 went to Ukrainian workers, with Russia the second most recruited country.
With martial law in Ukraine dictating that men aged between 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, the fruit & vegetable industry is now braced for a shortfall of workers for this year’s UK harvest.
“There are significant issues. Scheme operators will have to increase recruitment in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria to replace the Ukrainians already recruited, which will take time” said Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits.
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.
But with the NFU warning in February the 30,000 figure was already insufficient to meet the sector’s needs, latest developments heap further recruitment issues on an already strained sector.
“The new recruits are likely to be unskilled, with many of the workers who would have come from Ukraine having also worked here in 2021 and therefore having experience,” added Marston. “This will reduce the productivity of our workforce and make it even more important that the Home Office releases the promised 10,000 extra visas promptly, to ensure growers can get their crops picked with what will be a different and less efficient workforce.”
Marston also predicted growers’ costs would rise further. This would add to the challenges farmers are facing from an increase in on-farm costs and a 38% wage increase for seasonal workers, as reported by The Grocer this week.
Sources also pointed to the mental health burden being placed on permit operators and recruiters. One industry leader said it was particularly difficult for those who were seeing first-hand the impact on Ukraine, with some joining Zoom meetings with bombs going off in the background as discussions took place.
“As long as growers can get enough labour to harvest their crops, we don’t anticipate any significant shortages in 2022. But the cost and dislocation the current situation will cause with regard to harvest labour will put further strain on the longer-term viability and sustainability of our industry requiring positive support from government, retailers and the public,” Marston said.
However, the industry leader urged perspective, pointing out how lucky growers were in the UK to have recruitment as their main problem. They added the industry’s thoughts were with Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe at this time.
It comes as the NFU released a statement of support to Ukraine this week. “We wish to express our support to everyone in Ukraine and all Ukrainian farming families caught up in these horrifying events and to offer any assistance that may be possible for us to give you. We stand in solidarity with you at this horrifying moment in your history”, the letter read.