Jam maker facing worker crisis

A TIPTREE jam giant's strawberry picking season is facing potential summer ruin because the company has become caught up in the Government's immigration pickle.

A TIPTREE jam giant's strawberry picking season is facing potential summer ruin because the company has become caught up in the Government's immigration pickle.

Wilkin and Son's world famous Little Scarlett strawberries are in danger of being left to rot in the ground because legitimate fruit pickers from eastern Europe have been unable to get visas to enter the UK.

The award-winning Essex firm had been hoping to bring more than 100 casual workers from Bulgaria and Romania to help pick its 400-tonne strawberry crop.

But Home Office officials suspended processing visa applications at British embassies in the two countries at the end of March after allegations of a scam surfaced.

The row eventually led to the resignation of immigration minister Beverley Hughes last month.

At the peak of Wilkin and Son's harvesting season in mid-June, up to 150 eastern European labourers, who are paid a minimum of £4.50 an hour for eight-hour shifts, live in dormitories on the farm.

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But Chris Newenham, said yesterday only nine had so far arrived. “They got in before the suspension on processing. By this weekend, we'd be hoping to have 45 workers on site.

“We trying to get updates from the Home Office, but it's difficult getting answers so we're having to make contingency plans.

“We recruit from Bulgaria and Romania because workers there show such commitment when they arrive, but now we're advertising in some of the new accession countries.”

He added: “We'll also of course recruit anybody locally if they're interested, but people have to understand that it's casual, not permanent full-time, work.

“At the moment we're quite worried what effect this could have financially.”

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said yesterday: “On 30 March 2004, the Government announced a suspension on the processing of visa applications at its embassies in Bulgaria and Romania while the allegations about the processing of visas there were investigated.

“The current suspension does affect applicants from Bulgaria and Romania who need to obtain entry clearance to enter the UK.

“However, students from Moldova may apply for entry clearance at another British embassy, eg in Ukraine or Hungary.

“Ministers are very aware of the difficulties this is causing and will make an announcement as soon as they are able to.”

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