Britain facing vegetable 'shortages' due to 'lack of seasonal workers'

Britain facing vegetable 'shortages' due to 'lack of seasonal workers'

May 20, 2022

Britain faces summer of shortages on supermarket shelves after just one in four seasonal crop pickers turn up to work in some areas

  • Julian Marks, from Barfoots, said worker situation was getting ‘pretty desperate’
  • He warned some areas were missing up to 75 per cent of their seasonal workers
  • The Government ‘fully acknowledged’ the issue and says it is trying to ‘mitigate’
  • The impacts of Brexit and delays in issuing temporary visas have been blamed

Shoppers could struggle to get their hands on their favourite fruit and vegetables this summer due to a shortage of seasonal crop pickers, industry experts have warned.

Some areas of the UK are currently missing as much as 75 per cent of their seasonal workforce, raising fears produce will be left to rot in the ground.

The impacts of Brexit, with a large number of seasonal crop pickers traditionally coming from the EU, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and delays in issuing temporary visas have been blamed. 

Worried industry figures are said to be particularly concerned about the coming fortnight, when Tenderstem broccoli and courgettes both come into season.

Julian Marks, MD of food and farming company Barfoots, told industry magazine The Grocer that the situation was getting ‘pretty desperate’.

‘Ultimately, if it can’t be harvested there will be gaps on shelves,’ he warned.

Today the Government said it ‘fully acknowledged’ that the food and farming industry is facing ‘labour challenges’ and was working to ‘mitigate’ the issues.

The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said it had already relaxed visa entry requirements for season workers – following issues last year- and was working at attracting UK workers to the sector. 

Some areas of the UK are currently missing as much as 75 per cent of their seasonal workforce, raising fears produce will be left to rot in the ground. Pictured: Library image of workers picking watercress in June last year

A graphic showing where Britain’s fruit-pickers are flown in from. Ukraine and Russia provided the highest number of workers last year. But Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, meaning the pool of foreign workers available to the UK will be even smaller this summer

It comes as industry experts warned that staff shortages ranged from 30 per cent in Worcestershire to 50 per cent in the East of England to 75 per cent in other areas.

How have the cost of goods risen at YOUR supermarket? Shopping data reveals average price of items at Iceland has shot up 11% in a year, Aldi by 9.6% and Sainsbury’s by 1.1% 

Britons looking to cut back on their food bills amid the cost of living crisis are being hit with bigger price rises in discount chains than in their supermarket rivals, according to new data.

Figures show how Aldi and Iceland have upped the cost of an average item in their shops by more than Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons in the last 12 months. 

An average item now costs 31p more than it did 12 months ago in Iceland – a rise of 11 per cent – while Aldi prices have risen by 19p on average – a rise of 9.6 per cent.

The figures, from Trolley.co.uk’s Grocery Price Index, also show how three of the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets, Asda, Tesco and Morrisons, have kept average price rises down to around 3 per cent.

Sainsbury’s saw the smallest increase in the average cost of an item of the major supermarkets, with prices rising by 4p –  a rise of 1.1 per cent – while Co-Op saw the smallest increase of 0.3 per cent.

Waitrose saw one of the largest monetary increases, with an average 22p rise per item over the last 12 months. However this represented a 4.4 per cent rise, due to Waitrose having a slightly higher price per item to begin with.

It comes as separate analysis by MailOnline shows how the average cost of a 20 item shopping basket is now £3 more than it was in May last year.

Britons looking to cut back on their food bills amid the cost of living crisis are being hit with bigger price rises in discount chains than in their supermarket rivals, according to new data

Perhaps even more worryingly, is that it is key staples including milk, butter and spaghetti that have seen some the biggest rises – with the popular pasta seeing an average 17 per cent rise in cost in the last 12 months.

Meanwhile, Tesco now has the most expensive 20 item basket of the UK’s big four supermarkets, coming in at £66.24 – up from £62.67 in May last year.

It comes as it was revealed how inflation – a measure of price changes over time – had soared to a 40-year high yesterday.

The headline CPI rate – a measure of all consumer goods and services purchased by households – rose to 9 per cent in April – up from 7 per cent in March. It is now the highest level since 1982.

And the Bank of England expects the rate will get even worse, peaking at 10.25 per cent during the final quarter of the year amid biggest squeeze on incomes since records began in the 1950s. That would be more than five times its 2 per cent target.

Earlier this week the bank’s chief issued an ‘apocalyptic’ warning about soaring food prices and said he felt ‘helpless’ in the fight against inflation as he told MPs the Ukraine war could yet deepen the cost-of-living crisis.

Governor Andrew Bailey revealed how further food inflation was a ‘major worry’ for the central bank, with particular concerns about wheat and cooking oil.

He also warned that a ‘very real income shock’ is coming this year as prices spiral at the fastest rate in 30 years and make millions of people poorer in real terms – and that surging inflation would hit household spending, causing unemployment to rise.

Tory ministers are now exploring a triple tax cut to ease the cost of living crisis, including helping homeowners with rising energy prices.

One of the main drivers of inflation, which is being seen in many parts of the world, including the EU and the US, has been spiraling natural gas and crude oil prices. 

A sudden flux in world demand following the lifting of Covid restrictions in many countries has outstripped supply, causing a price rush across much of the world.

And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further compounded issues, because both Russia and Ukraine are larger supplier of grain and sunflower seeds to much of Europe – and supplies are being heavily disrupted.

Supermarket industry chiefs today told MailOnline that firms are ‘doing their bit’ to keep prices low but are facing rising costs, particularly in food production.

 

Julian Marks, MD of food and farming company Barfoots, told the magazine: ‘we’re just about keeping our heads above water but it could change in 48 hours or a week depending on delays on permits.

‘The challenge for us comes in about a fortnight’s time when we have Tenderstem broccoli and courgettes come in together, and you still have asparagus to pick now.’

Crops ready to pick now are being left to rot in the ground which will inevitably cause food shortages in the shops, he added.

‘I know that there are salad growers in Kent who have already walked past crops. 

‘I know that there are asparagus growers who have mowed the top of the crop off to win themselves a week or two weeks and there are others who are saying that it looks like they will have to leave crop behind.

‘Ultimately, if it can’t be harvested there will be gaps on shelves.’

A vast majority of seasonal pickers come from overseas, including from the EU. Before Brexit most of Britain’s seasonal crop pickers came over from eastern Europe.

But the flow has been disrupted since Brexit, with temporary staff now needing visas. A large number of the UK’s seasonal workers also came from both Ukraine and Russia – which are now at war – further reducing the number of pickers available to the UK.

The UK introduced the seasonal workers’ visa scheme in 2019, which allowed pickers to be flown in from any country around the world.

Last year, Britain turned to workers from further afield to plug the gaps left by EU pickers.

Home Office figures revealed how more than 16,000 labourers were shipped in from across 37 countries for the 2021 season – including from as far away as Barbados, Nepal, Tajikistan, Kenya and the Philippines. 

In comparison, just 7,000 workers from 14 countries arrived on seasonal workers’ visas in 2020. 

The Government has also relaxed entry requirements for the sector in a bid to pull in more workers. 

But delays in issuing visas and mistakenly rejecting visa applications that were valid has led to a backlog of arrivals.

In addition, Government proposals to increase the number of UK workers filling vacancies left by former EU workers who returned home during Covid has failed because there are plenty of other more ‘desirable’ jobs available for unemployed Britons. 

The Government has relaxed the rules for seasonal farm workers, promising 10,000 extra visas and launching schemes to encourage more Britons to take up summer jobs picking crops.

But Mr Marks said the visas were not being issued fast enough to fill vacancies needed now and for the June and July peak season.

He said: ‘It is going to be absolutely no use for somebody to say more labour is going to arrive in August and September.’

Visa processing has been slowed down by a shift in attention to Ukrainians fleeing their country following Russia’s invasion.

A spokesman for the government department Defra which deals with the industry, said: ‘We fully acknowledge the food and farming industry is facing labour challenges and we are continuing to work with the sector to mitigate them.

‘We have given the industry greater certainty in accessing seasonal, migrant labour by extending the seasonal workers visa route until the end of 2024.

‘This allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector, in addition to EU nationals living in the UK with settled or pre-settled status.’

The government is also ‘working towards attracting UK workers to the sector.’

However Marks said the workforce was not there in the UK. He added: ‘The notion is that somewhere in the UK there are hordes of hardworking people who want to come and pick fruit and veg. The reality is those people are not there.’

The warning comes as MP last month warned that chronic labour shortages in the food and farming sector could see food prices continue to rise.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report – devised by six Tory and four Labour MPs along with an SNP colleague – said as of August last year the sector had ‘potentially in excess of 500,000 job vacancies’.

The report found evidence of pressure and shortages before the outbreak of war in Ukraine had caused the sector to experience ‘even greater pressure’ and said this was ‘due principally to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic’.

And it said the Government ‘must learn the lessons’ from how it introduced temporary short-term visa schemes in autumn 2021, because the ‘late announcement limited the sector’s ability to take advantage of the visas’.

The report called on Ministers to review aspects of the Skilled Worker Visa scheme that ‘act as barriers, including the English language requirement and the complexity and costs involved in a visa application’.

It said there must be an expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme and increase in the number of visas available by 10,000 this year – as well as making the scheme permanent and announcing visa numbers in future.

The release of the report comes after a torrid year for the industry that left nearly a quarter of the UK daffodil crop unpicked, fruit produce rotting in the fields and 35,000 pigs culled because of a lack of workers. 

An agricultural worker checks the growth of blueberries at a farm in Maidenhead at the start of the pandemic in 2020 

The difference in the forecast and actual unemployment rates during 2020 and 2021 is shown in this graphic from the report

‘The evidence we have taken leaves us in no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages,’ wrote the study’s authors.

‘These include food security, animal welfare and the mental health of those working in the sector.

‘In contrast, the Government has not demonstrated a strong understanding of these issues, and even on occasion sought to pass the blame onto the sector on the basis of incorrect information about its own immigration system.

‘The Government must radically shift its attitude and work together with the sector to devise solutions that speedily help address the problems it faces, in the short, medium and long-term to help the UK’s food industry and enable it to thrive.

‘Failure to do so risks shrinking the sector and leading to higher food inflation at the price of the UK’s competitiveness, thereby making the country more reliant on food imports as we export our food production capacity – as well as the jobs it supports – abroad.’

Around 35,000 pigs which were destined to become sausages, bacon and chops have been culled because of a chronic lack of skilled butchers and abattoir workers.

Kate Morgan, a Yorkshire-based pig farmer, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last month: ‘It’s really quite desperate. We’ve had a really, really difficult nine months that’s been brought on by labour shortages and has affected farmers on the ground. And it continues to be a struggle to be honest.

‘We’ve had a really big backlog of pigs on farm that were contracted to the processors and they just didn’t take those contracted pigs. And so we had to deal with them. Obviously our pigs are growing every day, and every day we have new piglets born.

‘They weren’t leaving the farm, and so we were just getting more and more on the farm, and we were having to create pens for them. They were growing and going out of spec. It was costing us a lot of money, a lot of stress emotionally and financially.’

She added: ‘I don’t think the Government still fully understand agriculture. They don’t do anything until it’s too late. We’ve got a massive issue with food security about to hit us, and still they are not acknowledging it and they’re not facing it. This has been happening for nine months, the labour shortage, and yet now a report comes out. They just do not act fast enough.’

The agriculture sector, like much of the British economy, is facing sky-high energy prices following lockdowns and labour shortages in the wake of Brexit. 

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