Fruit-picking fears after big recruitment slump at some farms

  • Watch: full report by ITV News Meridian's Kit Bradshaw

Fruit farms in the South East are warning they may struggle to recruit enough seasonal workers for the upcoming picking season.

One business in Kent has seen a 90% decline in applications from both foreign and UK jobseekers, compared to 2019.

A combination of the introduction of new post-Brexit immigration rules and the lingering consequences of the pandemic are being blamed for the difficulties.

It’s part of a “worrying trend”, according to Stephen Taylor, managing director at Winterwood Farms near Maidstone.

Some farms are worried they won't have enough workers for the peak of the picking season.

“The number of people who can legally work in this country has dropped off significantly. It’s partly Eastern European people can get jobs easier in Germany and partly they don’t feel welcome because of the Brexit vote and some of the press around foreigners working and taking English people’s jobs, which is all completely untrue”, Mr Taylor added.

An estimated 80,000 seasonal workers are employed on farms across the UK each summer, according to the National Farmers Union. Typically 90% of those roles are filled by overseas labour, often from Romania and Bulgaria.

  • Stephen Taylor, managing director, Winterwood Farms

A national 'Pick for Britain' campaign was launched last year to encourage domestic workers to plug the shortfall caused by coronavirus travel restrictions. One of those to answer the call was Hollieanna Alabone-Battye, who was facing an uncertain future after working for 15 years on cruise ships as a dancer and personal shopper.

“I went from suits, stilettos and acrylic nails, to trainers, t-shirts, shorts and a sun tan. It was a very big shock for me,” she said.

Changes to the immigrations rules and the consequences of the pandemic are being blamed for recruitment issues.

Ms Alabone-Battye is one of only a handful of the British workers who joined in 2020 still employed at Winterwood, with many returning to their pre-pandemic jobs.

“It’s definitely a physical job, it’s not for the faint-hearted but at the same time I was actually healthier last year than I’d been for a long time on the ships,” she added.

  • Hollieanna Alabone-Battye, farm worker

Manager Stephen Taylor is hopeful they will get the required numbers for the peak of the picking season in a few weeks time, but is concerned the problem will only get worse in the years to come.

“The Eastern European workforce is an ever-decreasing pool of labour, as they now need at least pre-settled [immigration] status in order to work. So numbers will go down every year,” Mr Taylor added.

Those with pre-settled status can travel from other EU countries to work in the UK. In addition, the government has issued 30,000 visas through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

These British blueberries will need picking in around four weeks' time.

The chairman of trade body British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston, thinks ministers need to look at increasing the annual number of visas in time for next year.

“It’s going to be worse next year,” he told ITV News Meridian. “So, what we need to do is to work out how many people we think we will get back next year - returnees - and I think the answer will be that we will need more than 30,000 seasonal visas and probably substantially more.”

A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Seasonal workers provide vital labour to ensure that local produce gets onto supermarket shelves.

“We will always back our farmers and growers, and ensure that producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.”

They also cited the department's review into automation, which they said will “pave the way for a pioneering and efficient future” for fruit and vegetable growers.