A shortfall in the total number of visas and delays in processing post-Brexit seasonal working visas by the Home Office are being compounded by the Ukraine war, which has blocked a major source of UK farm workers. Last year, more than 60 percent of people who entered the country on a seasonal visa came from the Ukraine, while 8 percent hailed from Russia. Workers from both countries are no longer available, adding to the woes of British farmers.
Sandfield Farms Managing Director Derek Wilkinson, who normally employees more than 750 foreign workers at his produce farm in Worcestershire, is being hit hard by the situation. He said visa processing delays have already cost him around £250,000 of his asparagus and spring onion crops. Without enough workers, they are simply unable to harvest around 45,000 kilograms of asparagus and 750,000 lots of spring onions.
Speaking to Sky News, he noted that Brits are uninterested in this type of work.
“We try to recruit locally and there just aren’t the people out there. British people just don’t want seasonal work; if you live in the UK you need a permanent job. We do try to recruit but we'd get very little uptake,” he said.
According to Wilkinson, the UK’s visa processing delays are significantly greater than those in other countries. While processing takes roughly six to seven weeks in the UK at the moment, farmers in Germany and Holland are reporting that they can get visas processed in a matter of a few days.
In early May, Wilkinson's farm was already 40 percent short on the workers they needed. Although many workers had been recruited, their visas were not getting processed, and the situation has only gotten worse.
Farmers have expressed concern that the industry will not be able to reap a full harvest in this year’s berry season, and the upcoming pear and apple seasons are also expected to suffer.
The easy access to seasonal labor afforded to the UK by its EU membership is credited with helping shape the country’s agriculture industry. In particular, it improved the viability of labor-intensive crops like berries.
However, the UK’s seasonal workforce has been dwindling since its seasonal worker visa program was introduced post-Brexit. In the past, seasonal workers were largely able to enter the country from the EU without restrictions; the new seasonal worker visa program is the only way for low-pay, low-skill workers to enter the country these days.
It is believed that the UK government will aim to phase out visas for seasonal workers by 2024 so that domestic workers and automation methods such as fruit-picking robots can pick up the slack, although many farmers insist these approaches are just not feasible.
National Farmers Union Deputy President Tom Bradshaw said: “We have a very low level of unemployment. We have 4 percent unemployed and millions of vacancies, so it is unrealistic for it to be delivered from the domestic workforce when there are plenty of permanent roles.”
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Chairman Sir Robert Goodwill said he believes the program should remain intact because uncertainty over the availability of labor could hinder the agriculture sector’s growth.
“If you're planting a vineyard or building a packhouse, you need to be sure that you have labour to come and do that work into the future. The scheme is very successful and there's no reason why they shouldn't make it permanent," he pointed out.
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