As the UK moves in to the most labour intensive period of the year, strawberry harvest time, the situation may not be quite as bad as has been expected.
John Hardman from HOPS Labour Solutions said he has managed to fill the orders he has received for seasonal labour so far this season. "We are a very well established company and supply workers to good farms which provide good conditions and wages."
"It has been challenging especially getting workers from Bulgaria, but it has not been a terrible season so far, although the pinch point will come as the strawberry season reaches it's peak."
John said that growers are quick to complain about not having enough workers but they must also look at what they provide those workers in terms of wages and conditions. "Scotland has long been a problem due its northerly situation and while most growers provide a good working and living environment, a minority of growers do not. Workers do prefer to work in places like Kent which is better situated. The workers do have a lot of options these days and there is a lot of work in Europe without the uncertainty of Brexit to deal with. The wages can also be better in countries such as Germany."
The EU also already has a visa scheme in place for workers from the Ukraine, the UK was supposed to have this in place for 2,500 workers this season but the actual number of visas issued is tiny.
The biggest challenge is yet to come in August when the end of the strawberry season coincides with the start of the apple harvest.
Tim Stockwell who grows fruit in Fife, Scotland said that at the moment he has enough seasonal workers to pick the fruit, he is not quite into peak season yet so it remains to be seen if he will have the 350 workers needed at peak time.
"Last year we suffered a bit from lack of labour but this year the agents seem to be finding it easier to get the workers. This season has started earlier and is progressing a bit slower, last year we had a late start and then went quickly into large production."
Tim said he has a lot of returning workers from Romania and Bulgaria who quite often come back with friends, he also gets workers from agents.
"The lack of labour last year may have been down to the uncertainty of Brexit, but now that has been extended until October. It will still be important to have access to workers from Bulgaria and Romania post Brexit."
Chris Chinn from Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire, grower of asparagus and blueberries, who does his own recruiting says there is generally enough labour at the moment. “The challenge is no shows and people who turn up but don’t stay. Also the quality of workers coming is deteriorating, the average age is increasing and the skill levels are decreasing, we are no longer getting the young educated people, now it is older people from more rural areas, they can’t really cope with the extra workloads and high temperatures during peak periods. Due to lack of English it very hard to manage these people.”
Chris does have some people from the Seasonal Worker’s pilot scheme, these are young people from the Ukraine and Moldovia and the quality is much higher. “We are very pleased about the scheme, but it started late and we need to increase the number of people on it, we lost crop in the spring because we didn’t have enough people.”
“It is long journey and a big commitment for people to come to Europe to work and they need certainty before they will come and if hurdles are put in their way they will go to countries such as Germany where it is more straight forward and the there is no threat of Brexit.
“The availability of workers from Europe has driven the increase in soft fruit and asparagus production in recent years, we have to decide if we want to import workers or import produce from Europe. We could impose tariffs on European fruit imports, but surely locally grown is a much better option?”
There is a big hype about automation lessening the need for manual labour but according to Chris it won’t make any difference to the asparagus harvest which will always need people. He said it will never be cheaper to use automation than to import produce from Spain