UK, Brexit and labour shortages

"It is a supply issue which has been made worse by Brexit"

Last week a deal was struck between Theresa May's UK government and the EU in the first phase of the Brexit talks. EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa will have their rights to live, work and study protected.

"FPC welcomes the statement made last week on the future rights of EU citizens," said Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive at the Fresh Produce Consortium. "It recognises the importance of giving much needed security to EU nationals working here in our industry and who wish to remain in the UK after Brexit. However, there is still a long way to go to provide absolute certainty and confidence for the UK fresh produce industry and for those individuals who come to the UK to make a valuable contribution to our businesses."

Nigel said that we need to able to access the EU labour market for both permanent and temporary positions throughout the supply chain. "Many UK businesses are already experiencing a tightening in the supply of temporary labour for a combination of reasons. We will continue to press the UK Government to work with us to put in place a flexible scheme which provides access to labour across a range of skills levels, and which will provide businesses with the assurance to invest in future growth in the UK."

But it seems that in some aspects of the fresh produce industry, Brexit has already made its mark.

"Nothing has really changed," said Sarah Boparan from Recruitment firm HOPS Labour Solutions. "We still have no answer from the Government on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). The recent decision in the Brexit negotiations to allow European workers to stay and have the same rights in the UK has not changed their inclination to come to the UK."

The problem, according to Sarah is that there are so many companies sourcing from the same group of people that it is difficult to encourage people to choose the UK and to do this kind of job. This affects the length of their stay and their dedication to the job, meaning the fresh produce sector can't rely on this labour in the same way that they have been able to.

"The period of uncertainty caused by Brexit initially put people off coming to the UK, but it is starting to settle as conditions here are far better than in some other EU countries, for example in Germany the wages are better but the accommodation is at a lower standard. There are less and less people, even from overseas who want to do these jobs as there are far better jobs available for them. People with higher levels of English are being sought after by companies.

"The communities from which we are now sourcing are becoming more rural, and with that goes the anxiety of leaving home and travelling for the first time, this alone is a big step for them. Then there is the issue of staying over here for a long time during harvest, which is not just three months as some MPs believe. It is a big commitment for them, we want them to sign up for six months and they will only commit to eight weeks, but obviously a grower needs more commitment."

"It is a supply issue which has been made worse by Brexit, which caused a lot of uncertainty amongst people already here. There also still a lot of xenophobia in the UK and people wonder if they would be welcome.

Another factor is that the European benefit system is changing, "What is happening is that people are coming here to work for a period of time and then return to their home countries and claim higher benefits for a longer period of time which does not encourage them to come back.

The future
Sarah said they have had to change their business model to make themselves more attractive to applicants, and more companies are going to have to change and offer things such as no optional fees to applications, so they do not have to pay for their own flights up front. "This is just one example, we are constantly looking for ways, other countries where we can access people from, visa schemes etc. but nothing is ever certain, we are not dealing with a commodity we are dealing with people."

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