British farmers say they are facing the “soul-destroying” prospect of leaving crops to rot in the fields unless a post-Brexit visa scheme for seasonal workers is announced soon.
They say that many of the UK’s seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers have already started to look for jobs elsewhere in the EU after receiving no assurances that they will be welcome after Brexit.
Romanians, Bulgarians and other eastern Europeans make up the bulk of Britain’s fruit and vegetable workers and are vital in getting British produce from field to shop.
A seasonal worker visa scheme was scrapped five years ago due to EU freedom of movement within the EU making it no longer necessary.
But the Brexit impasse means recruiting from eastern Europe has become more difficult, say the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), whose own figures show that the shortfall in seasonal workers is around 30%.
Farmer Chris Chinn, whose business employs up to 1,000 seasonal workers and which has struggled to fill their positions this season, told Sky News that twice during the asparagus season they had to leave crops unpicked in the fields – something he describes as “soul-destroying”.
He told the station: “Without staff we don’t harvest the crops, if we can’t harvest the crops we are going to stop planting the crops… that means that business disappears and that means those crops disappear from the supermarket shelves.”
Seasonal pickers could easily find similar work elsewhere in the EU.
Monica Sermas, from Romania, told Sky the work was the same in different countries. “It doesn’t matter for them [her colleagues] that much, they still want a job and that can be anywhere,” she said.
“They just want to know the future here.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, a champion of the campaign group Best for Britain, which is calling for a second referendum, said: “The government is floundering – yet again. “A tiny fraction – 0.6% – of the 85,000 seasonal workers in the horticulture industry are British. So it’s quite obvious that if Brexit restricts the movement of people coming in to help with harvest, we’re in trouble. Crops will literally rot. “It seems Brexit is beginning to wither on the vine of reality.”