British apple growers claim they face “catastrophe” if access to temporary EU labour is withdrawn because of Brexit – and the 2019 is in serious jeopardy.
Approximately 10,300 seasonal workers are needed each year to manage busy harvest periods when orchard-grown fruit crops exceed 300,000 tonnes in the UK. This is worth more than £180 million, according to the report by consultancy Andersons Midlands on behalf of growers’ organisation English Apples & Pears.
Historically the UK’s workforce of fruit pickers has been made up of temporary employees from overseas, including people from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and many other EU countries. UK-based farms say they find it difficult to recruit people living in Britain who have traditionally shunned this kind of work.
If the Government fails to introduce a new seasonal workers scheme within the next year, the UK orchard fruit sector will be dealt a heavy blow, warns English Apples & Pears chief executive, Steven Munday.
“The 2019 crop – and with it the future of the industry – is at stake,” he says.
“Until now the vast majority of our labour has come from Europe, but there are currently no post-Brexit guarantees that this will continue. It is no use waiting until March 2019 when we leave the EU to see what happens. We have to organise our workforce about a year in advance, so September 2018 is the deadline for a seasonal workers scheme to be in place.
“Without this, the consequences for growers, consumers and the environment will be devastating.”
Earlier this year the government ruled out a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which helps people from overseas temporarily work on UK farms and vitally plug gaps in the fruit picking workforce.
Ever since the result of the EU referendum last June, the UK’s agricultural industry has been calling for SAWS or something similar to be reinstated, claiming many sectors and businesses face severe setbacks if foreign seasonal workers are not allowed to come into the country.
However, the then Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill MP, rejected calls for another type of scheme. As Britain and the EU go through long and drawn out negotiations, it remains unclear exactly what will happen in relation to overseas seasonal workers being allowed to continue.
According to the study, about 30% of UK demand for orchard fruits (apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots) is met with fruit grown in the country. The loss of this volume would increase imports, potentially raise prices, and add to environmental costs.
Labour accounts for up to 50% of the costs of production for growers, so having continued access to a competitive labour market is essential for the continuing prosperity and growth of UK orchard fruits.
“UK orchard fruit is a success story. Volumes grown here are up by 27% since 1997 and we’re predicting more growth for the future. In fact we’ll need 11,500 workers by 2021. All of this is now in jeopardy unless the labour situation is resolved,” added Munday. “We are counting down to catastrophe.”