Growers in the UK may face serious labour problems if the government slaps restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.

The two countries have just been told that they can join the EU on 1 January next year. But serious conditions have been attached to their membership.

Liam Byrne, the government's immigration minister, says their citizens will be granted only gradual access to the UK's labour market and has mooted a points system that would only allow highly skilled workers or those with skills that are in high demand to work here.

But the NFU's horticulture adviser, Philip Gibson, said that such a policy would create a labour shortage and push up growers' wage bills. In the worst case, he claimed that British produce might even become scarcer on supermarket shelves because there were not enough workers to

pick it.

"Now they are joining the EU, Romanians and Bulgarians won't be allowed to work here under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which is only open to students from outside the EU.

"Government has proposed a cut in next year's SAWS quota, from 16,250 to 12,000, but that was before the decision to restrict access for Romania and Bulgaria."

He called for an immediate freeze on cuts to SAWS amid signs that immigrant workers are already becoming less enthusiastic about working in horticulture.

"There are indications from this year's harvest that workers are more choosy about the sort of work they want to do: either they want to do specific jobs in horticulture, or refuse to work in the sector at all."

Growers were facing a potential shortage of labour from April, which, he said could push up costs.

"We're concerned about a lack of labour per se. If the fruit or vegetables don't get picked, British produce doesn't end up on

supermarket shelves and the consumer loses out."