The soft fruit industry could be “crushed” by Brexit if it loses access to the thousands of seasonal workers it relies upon from EU countries, a trade body has claimed.
A report published by British Summer Fruits – The Impact of Brexit on the UK Summer Fruit Industry – argued that by 2020 more than 31,000 workers will be needed to keep up with consumer demand for berries and other soft fruits, up from around 29,000 staff in 2015.
It claimed around 95% of the industry’s seasonal workers come from EU countries, primarily Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
It called on the government to consider a “seasonal agriculture permit scheme” after Brexit which would allow fruit pickers and other agricultural workers to seek employment in the UK on fixed-term contracts and “fill the jobs UK citizens shun”.
“This is as extreme as it gets. If we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry,” said Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits. “If we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, [harming the industry] will be an unintended consequence of Brexit – along with soaring prices and increased reliance on imports.”
He said that if the UK is to leave the single market in 2019, a seasonal workers permit scheme needs to be agreed by this September to allow farmers to hire people before the next season – which can begin early as March.
Alison Capper, chair of the National Farmers Union’s horticulture board, said the importance of low-skilled workers needed to be recognised ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU. “Until now, high skilled migration has received priority treatment. We challenge why this should be the case, when vital sectors of the economy – such as food and drink – rely heavily on large numbers of EU workers,” she said.
The report warned that the government could face a slump in revenue from income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance contributions if the industry is unable to secure the workers it needs. It might also result in a 35-50% increase in the price of strawberries and raspberries if supplies drop or fruit needs to be imported.
According to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, two-thirds of organisations that employ temporary workers were concerned about the availability of candidates, up from 32% last year.