The impact of falling labor availability has been demonstrated in a survey carried out by British Berry Growers in November 2021. This found that, since 2019, there has been an annual 37-40% drop in the number of EU nationals working in the berry industry; from 33,763 in 2019 to 10,578 in 2022. Annual fruit wastage due to this lack of pickers almost doubled from £18.7 mln in 2020 to £36.5 mln in 2021, the survey revealed.
Nick Marston of British Berry Growers says home secretary Suella Braverman is “misguided” if she believes Brits can plug the workforce gap on UK berry farms. UK residents made up about 8% of the workforce during the first Covid lockdown, but this promptly fell to about 0.5% as soon as all the other sectors reopened, he said.
According to Marston, the proportion of UK workers in the seasonal berry industry has been falling for years, mainly because seasonal work is by definition less attractive than full-time work for people living in the UK.
Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, agrees that the home secretary and the Home Office are “fundamentally wrong” if they think the labor shortfall in the horticulture sector can be plugged by British workers.
With the current Seasonal Worker Scheme (SWS) due to expire in 2024, British Berry Growers wants the government to replace it with a five-year rolling scheme and extend the period of seasonal visas from six to nine months.
Marston: “Horticulture needs at least 60,000 seasonal workers in 2023 and people are short of staff. A lot of crops were wasted this year because we didn’t have the people.”
Since Brexit, many EU nationals have returned home or gone to work in other countries. Many who do return to the UK are attracted by jobs in other industries such as hospitality, the food services and tourism, rather than horticulture. EU nationals also need to be granted settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme to work in the UK without a visa.
This scheme will expire in 2025, when all workers from the EU will lose the right to enter the UK to work without a visa under pre-settled status. Thereafter, anyone from the EU or elsewhere who wants to come to work in the UK will require a visa, as are all new recruits to the UK workforce from the EU already.