Government to call on furloughed workers to pick crops due to shortage of migrants

Environment Secretary George Eustice during a media briefing in Downing Street on coronavirus (COVID

Environment Secretary George Eustice during a media briefing in Downing Street on coronavirus (COVID-19). Photograph: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire . - Credit: PA

The environment secretary George Eustice is encouraging furloughed workers to consider picking fruit and vegetables during the coronavirus outbreak due to a shortage of migrant workers.

Although the international food chain is continuing to 'work well', the environment secretary said he expects there to be a need to recruit staff in the UK to harvest crops at the start of summer.

He said that there was not enough migrant workers in the country to deal with the amount of fruit and vegetables that will need to be picked.

He explained: 'We estimate that probably only about a third of the migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here and was probably here before lockdown.'

And he said those currently relying on government funding during the coronavirus outbreak should be the ones to consider taking a 'second job' for the period.

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'We are working with industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in some cases to consider a second job helping get the harvest in June.'

He added: 'It's not an issue at the moment since the harvest has barely begun, but we do anticipate that there will be a need to recruit staff for those sectors in the month of June.'

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Labour's shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said ministers needed 'to set out clear plans for how nutritious and culturally appropriate food will be provided' to those in isolation.

He said: 'Part of that plan must mean setting up what support government will give to those working in the food supply sector, in particular farmers who are worried about crops rotting in fields due to lack of agricultural labour.'

Earlier this month the British Growers Association warned 40,000 workers will be needed from May onwards to deal with the fruit and vegetables that will need to be picked.

Jack Ward, chief executive, said: 'This is a long game. The salad season will run well into October and growers have got to be very confident that they have got enough labour for the entire season.

'We could be in a very different situation let's say by July 1.

'What we can't do is go 'OK, we had a terrific number of volunteers for the first eight weeks of the season and then they all went back to work and we haven't got anybody left'.'

It came as 160 Romanian pickers were flown in to help farmers at the start of the coronavirus lockdown, with the industry suggesting there may need to be more.

Before becoming environment secretary Tory MP Eustice warned against Priti Patel's immigration proposals, which would have reduced the number of workers on the farms, in care homes, and cafés, branding it an idea from 'the Seventies'.

Patel's bill was shelved from House of Commons business earlier this week.

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