Labour shortage breeds fear for UK strawberries

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: United kingdom, European union, Fruit

Strawberries and other seasonal fruit and veg could be left to rot
in the fields this summer due to a shortage of labourers to work
the harvest, the UK's National Farmers Union has warned, calling
for government support for seasonal migration.

The concerns, expressed by the NFU in a letter to DEFRA, have headlined the country's national press because strawberries are a treat closely associated with early summer. But the problem could also affect food manufacturers who use UK-grown produce as ingredients. In addition to traditional uses in jams, jellies, juices, sauces and confectionery, the health benefits of fruits including strawberries have received considerable attention of late. These have been leveraged by companies wishing to create a healthy and timely aura around their products, who use strawberries as ingredients. The NFU conducted a survey of growers, which found that a likely shortfall of workers from the EU to pick the soft fruit and salad vegetable harvest of between 36 and 55 per cent. Thirteen growers said they expected to see 2,400 fewer workers this year, up against a total demand of 4,365 for the season. A spokesperson for the NFU said: "There is a potential for some crops to remain unharvested, although businesses will do everything they can to draft in the necessary labour to prevent crops being left in the ground. "There is a serious problem with the availability of workers for this year's harvest and there needs to be an urgent increase in the number of Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) permits in order to resolve this in the short term." ​Under the SAWS scheme 15,000 foreign students in full-time education come to the UK each year. They are allowed to spend up to six months working on one farm and must return to their full-time education in their home country afterwards. Reasons proposed for the workforce shortfall include better conditions for Eastern European workers at home since EU accession, which is swaying their decision to seek temporary employment abroad. The NFU has told the government that, in its view, a longer-term solution would be more support for the policy of seasonal migration to meet labour demands. "SAWS is a win-win situation for businesses and temporary workers, who invariably come to Britain for the summer and then return home to continue their studies,"​ said the spokesperson. Thanks to the development of tunnel systems, the British soft fruit season now runs from May to mid-autumn. A decade ago it was limited to June and July. The concern over British fruits follows reports last month that the German asparagus harvest was likely to be affected by labour shortages. According to The Times​, this was attributed to fewer workers from Poland since accession. Polish workers have traditionally made up a large part of the workforce in the country. In addition, the government employment office ruled last year that unemployed Germans should make up 20 per cent of the asparagus harvest workforce - yet Germans were complaining that the work was hard and detrimental to their health.

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