‘It’s not enough’ – fruit grower under pressure as new immigration rules look set to shrink workforce
- Credit: Archant
A soft fruit grower fears for the future of his business - because he thinks proposed new Brexit immigration rules will make it much harder for him to recruit labour.
Andrew Sturgeon welcomes a team of around 16 seasonal Romanian farm workers every year to Lindsey Lodge Farm near Hadleigh - and they mainly return.
But he is very worried that a tightening of immigration laws - even with a new seasonal workers scheme - means that his business may be put in jeopardy down the line, because numbers are tightly capped.
Home secretary Priti Patel has set out plans for a new UK points-based immigration system, and environment secretary George Eustice announced an expansion of a Seasonal Workers Pilot, bringing the cap on numbers up from 2,500 workers to 10,000 in 2020.
But farm industry experts say this falls a long way short of the tens of thousands needed to plug the gap.
National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters has expressed serious concerns about the government's "failure" to recognise British food and farming's needs with its proposed immigration policy, and is pressing the case for not turning the immigration tap off for overseas labour in a number of farming sectors, including horticulture.
The government has pointed to robots - or automation - as a means of enabling various functions on farm to continue, but farm leaders fear this is unrealistic - at least in the short term.
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The Romanian families at Andrew's farm come over to pick strawberries and other soft fruit for him so that he can supply the East of England Co-op.
In the past, he has tried recruiting workers locally - but with no success.
"The concern is not for this year but for next year. The ones that are here have all signed up with their 'right to remain' documents," he says.
He believes that will allow them in next year, after Brexit, but he's worried about what will happen when, over time, some drop out.
He houses his workers in good quality mobile homes on the farm and feels he has a good relationship with them.
While they don't conform to the government's ideas on "skilled" workers, the work they do, and their proficiency in it, is highly skilled, he argues.
At the moment he has a team in putting up polytunnels and planting crops. He lost a couple of polytunnels in recent storm surges, but feels he got off lightly.
They'll be planting crops and prepping everything, ready for a second team which comes in at the end of April.
"Ten years ago, there was the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and that gave a lot of people the right to work. It gave them a visa or work card, and the government decided to abandon that.
"They are bringing it back in - but they are talking about around 10,000 work cards but the estimate is over 80 to 90k," he says. "It's not enough."
He is critical of home secretary Priti Patel's suggestion that the immigration limits would allow the country to level up. He asked where the "vast untapped pool of economically inactive labour in this country" was coming from.
Thirty years ago, the farm would have had a pool of local labour. The picture today is very different, he says, and finding workers willing to rise at 5am to pick fruit is unrealistic.
"We have tried," he said. But the workers who come over are well paid for what they do, he adds.
"The commonly-held belief that we pay low wages to these eastern European workers is a complete myth - they earn when they are picking these strawberries £12/£13/£14 an hour," he says.
"They feel very undervalued by our country. They have skills which are very difficult to find and they know it. They have friends working in every sector of our economy and find it difficult to accept that they are not making a real contribution to the economy."
He adds: "My gang are not here to suck any money they can out of the economy. Most of them are building houses back in Romania to call their permanent home. They are not interested in staying the full 12 months of the year.
"We house them on the farm in good quality accommodation - they are very happy here."
Over in Essex, Chris Newenham, joint managing director at Wilkin & Sons, which runs a large fruit farm at Tiptree for its jam making operation, has around 300 seasonal workers from the European Union working on the farm.
He feels the lifting of the cap to 10,000 "a step in the right direction". "Having said that, as an industry what we need is the future scaling up of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to 70/80,000."
Mrs Batters wants to see the cap increase, and is concerned about the "incredibly short" timeframe for businesses to prepare.
"Although the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Scheme will ease some of the pressure for the coming season, growers remain very concerned about how they will recruit vitally important seasonal workers in future," she says.
"We are urging government to commit to delivering a full scheme for 2021, which will enable us to recruit the 70,000 seasonal workers needed on British fruit, veg and flower farms.
"It is ironic that the government on the one hand is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet on the other hand making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain."