Labor shortages on UK farms have left tons of food unharvested, costing millions of pounds and farm gate food inflation soaring to as much as 20%, the farming industry has told Sky News.
Farmers say this year’s harvest was impacted by a drop in the total number of visas issued by the Home Office for seasonal workers, delays in processing those visas and a slump in the number of Ukrainian workers coming to the UK following the Russian invasion.
Last year, more than 60% of workers with seasonal visas were from Ukraine and 8% from Russia. This number has fallen sharply as adult Ukrainian men cannot leave the country.
Sky News has also spoken to Russians who say their visa applications have been canceled without explanation by recruitment agencies despite there being no explicit ban on Russians working in the UK.
As a result of the labor shortage, individual farmers have already left hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops in the ground and there are concerns about the industry’s ability to harvest a full crop during the current berry season and the upcoming apple and pear season.
Derek Wilkinson, managing director of Sandfield Farms, part of G’s fresh produce group, employs more than 750 expatriate workers on his farm in Worcestershire.
He told Sky News that the labor shortage, caused in part by delays in visa processing, has already cost around £250,000 of his crop of asparagus and spring onions grown in Worcestershire.
“If we don’t have the people, we just can’t reap the crops,” Mr Wilkinson said. “We try to recruit locally and there just aren’t the people out there. Brits just don’t want seasonal work, if you live in the UK you need a steady job. We’re trying to recruit, but we’d get very little intake.”
It took about six to seven weeks for some visas to be processed, “which I think is just ridiculous,” Mr Wilkinson said. “I speak to growers in Holland and Germany who are all doing the same thing and they can have a visa processed in a matter of days so I’m not sure why it’s taking so long.”
“That meant that at the beginning of May we were missing 40% of the people we were supposed to have here. They were recruited but they hadn’t processed the visas yet.”
As a result, the company lost 40-45,000 kilograms of asparagus, worth around £150,000, and 750,000 bunches of spring onions, which would have cost around £100,000, Mr Wilkinson said.
The number of UK seasonal workers has been falling since 2018 and the introduction of the post-Brexit visa regime for seasonal workers.
It is one of the few routes for low-skilled, low-paid workers to enter the UK from abroad. In the past, most seasonal workers came unreservedly from the European Union.
Around 30,000 seasonal worker visas were made available in 2021. A further 10,000 were granted this year, with 8,000 for horticulture and 2,000 to alleviate production problems in the poultry industry.
The government plans to reduce the number of visas available for seasonal workers next year before phasing them out entirely in 2024, looking to domestic workers and automation, including fruit picking robots, to fill the gap.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warns the plan is unrealistic and risks a decline in the horticultural sector, while the government is proposing an expansion as part of its recently released nutrition strategy.
Tom Bradshaw, Deputy President of the NFU, said: “We have very low unemployment, we have 4% unemployed and millions of vacancies, so it’s unrealistic for the local workforce to deliver when there are a lot of permanent jobs. “
“The Migration Advisory Committee has recognized that seasonal gardening is unique and we should embrace that,” said Mr Bradshaw. “We should be looking at the sector to enable it to deliver fresh British food and vegetables to our consumers, it’s a wonderful success story, it’s something we can do really well with our climate but have at the moment we feel like our hands are tied behind our backs.”
Sir Robert Goodwill, the Conservative leader of the Special Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told Sky News the seasonal workers scheme should be kept as uncertainty about the labor supply could discourage investment.
“We want it to be a permanent program. When you plant a vineyard or build a packhouse, you need to be sure you have workers who can come and do that work in the future. The program is very successful and there is no reason they should not make it permanent.”
Despite the high demand in the UK, Russian applicants face difficulties in obtaining visas. Ilshat Nizammev, from the southern city of Ufa, told Sky News his visa was canceled without explanation by a recruitment agency.
“I wanted to come but my visa was canceled and I heard that 500 Russian visas were canceled just like me, so what can I do?” he said.
“Our company sent us a long email, they apologize for this information, we support the Russians, we support the people of Ukraine, but this year it is difficult, we have never had this experience, we have never had it so many people who can’t get a visa, there’s nothing we can do for them.”
The Interior Ministry denied visas were being delayed and insisted it was processing applications within the “standard of service” of eight weeks, but priority was given to visas granted to Ukrainian refugees.
“We are processing simple applications for seasonal worker visas within the standard of service and it is incorrect to say that there are delays in issuing these visas,” a spokesman said.
The easy access to seasonal labor that the UK has enjoyed as a member of the European Union, particularly since 10 mainly Eastern European countries joined in 2004, has shaped agriculture to some extent.
The availability of labor made labor intensive crops like berries more viable and there was tremendous growth in this market. The British Berry Growers Association says the expansion is now in doubt as more than £36million worth of crops were destroyed in 2021 because they could not be harvested.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, which studies international migration and politics, says tightening working conditions could alter the harvest.
“In the longer term, with less labor available, we could expect the UK to return to a position a little closer to where it was in the early 2000s when we weren’t producing as many labour-intensive products,” she said.
“In the short term, this can be quite disruptive for farmers who have built a business model that relies on the availability of a significant number of seasonal workers.”