British berry growers lament Brexit-induced labor drought

A large majority of producers already have trouble hiring seasonal workers and expect price hikes to kick in soon, according to a report by the sector’s industry body.

The UK has yet to leave the EU but fruit growers are already seeing a dwindling labor pool as the number of seasonal workers from Europe declines.

That is the conclusion of a report commissioned by British Summer Fruits, the country’s industry body for berry growers, which represents 95 percent of all UK-grown berries supplied to supermarkets.

Three out of five producers that participated in its survey said it has already become more difficult to recruit seasonal workers. Two-thirds noted a fall in applications for seasonal work, and the same proportion expect the labor market to tighten even more next year.

“British growers are dependent on seasonal agricultural workers from the EU. Without them we cannot cultivate and harvest the volumes of berries currently produced in the UK and continue to meet consumer demand,” said Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits.

The fallout will impact two variables key to maintaining the sector in a healthy shape: prices and investment.

The report estimated consumers will have to pay between 35 percent and 50 percent more for strawberries and raspberries, with the loss of seasonal labor pushing the cost of the former up from around £2 ($2.7; €2.3) per 400g to £2.75. Citing a recent survey by pollsters YouGov, BSF says the price hike would put them out of reach for millions of Brits.

The last strawberry

As a result of the uncertainty surrounding access to skilled workforce, four out of five growers also expected to produce less in future, and the same proportion are rethinking investment plans. A third have already made the decision to invest less in their businesses in future, according to the report.

To help address such problems, BSF is calling for the reintroduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Scheme, which would make it easier for seasonal workers to come into the UK.

“We are not talking about migration, we are talking about a proven system which would allow seasonal workers into the UK to undertake demanding and highly skilled jobs — jobs which British workers either are not available to do, or quite frankly don’t want to do,” said Marston.

“It is important to remember that these are seasonal workers — men and women who come here to work, pay tax and National Insurance in the UK, contribute to the rural economy, and then go back to their own countries at the end of the picking season.”

BSF says Environment Secretary Michael Gove has described the case for SAWS as “compelling,” while the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee earlier this year called for the government to consider a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme “to meet current demand.”