Employment

The post-Brexit plan for non-EU fruit pickers will have "little effect"

A two-year trial will allow 2,500 pickers to enter the UK – just 10 per cent of the numbers required to stop unpicked fruit dying in Britain’s fields

The government has tried to circumvent the loss of EU seasonal fruit pickers with the announcement of a nationwide two-year pilot to allow 2,500 workers from outside the Union to head to the UK for six months.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s plan opens the door for workers from India, Ukraine and north Africa, for example, to step in – but in nowhere near the numbers required to fill the void left by EU workers.

Meeting the increased demand for strawberries and other fruits means that an estimated 31,000 seasonal workers will be needed by 2020 to avoid unpicked fruit dying in the fields. The axing of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2013 – which enabled Romanian and Bulgarian workers to secure visas to come over to the UK to pick fruit – and Brexit uncertainty has seen EU job applications plummet 63 per cent for positions this year.

Fruit picking
Fruit-picking-stats

Javid insisted that pilot will “ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times this year”.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, hailed the news as a “major victory” and said: “It is recognition from the government that British horticulture is a successful, thriving sector which faces some unique challenges but is capable of producing more great, healthy British fruit and vegetables for people to eat”.

But British Summer Fruits chairman Nick Marston has cast doubt on the plans, claiming that they will have “little effect” on a situation which could see unpicked fruit die in the fields. And it is hard to argue with the figures with 60,000 seasonal staff heading over from the EU annually with around half in the soft fruits sector alone. He said: “We welcome the recognition by government of the need for non-EU workers in horticulture in the UK and for the introduction of a SAWS scheme, albeit a ‘pilot’.

Our farms are reporting staff shortages of 10-20 per cent already, and to have any effect in terms of supporting our successful industry, around 10,000 are needed now – not 2,500 – this number will have little effect on the current shortages UK farms are facing as we speak.

University of Exeter fruit picking robot
Dr-Vishuu-Mohans-robotic-arm-University-of-Essex
Dr Vishuu Mohan's robot arm is being developed to be ready in time for Brexit

“The proposal represents a four per cent increase in a shrinking workforce, the UK berry industry grows by at least eight per cent per annum and this will not sustain a standstill, let alone growth

“The British berry industry is a great success story, we are nearly 100 per cent self-sufficient for a long period of the year, and we need this level of support if we are to continue to thrive and grow.”

“Whilst we appreciate the need for government to manage the scheme, we would ask for further clarification on how they see this moving to a sustainable longer-term solution that can provide for the shortage in labour we are already dealing with.”

The Big Issue has previously investigated why Brits are not filling the shortages in the fields while just last week we reported that farmers could even turn to robots to ensure fruit is not left unpicked.

Image: Getty

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