Concern over lack of fruit and vegetable workers in the UK
According to the head of policy at the Sustainable Food Trust, until the 1980s, seasonal jobs in horticulture were done in large part by UK students during university holidays. Large-scale fruit and veg production in the UK now relies on around 75,000-80,000 workers, the majority from the EU from Poland, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria. Early on in this crisis large-scale producers recognised that with restriction of movement due to Coronavirus, that they would not meet these numbers, although there has been some movement of workers to the UK via specially chartered flights and there were some workers who were planting and who are now staying to harvest.
Of course, the UK is not alone in the challenges faced by fruit and vegetable producers. In Spain it is estimated that tens of thousands more pickers are needed over the coming months to harvest the stone fruit crop alone.
On the 17th March HOPS launched a recruitment drive for British workers and by the 31st March 10,000 had been recruited. Gs Fresh Produce also launched a ‘Feed our nation’ campaign which has been inundated with applications. On the 26th March the NFU also launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign. On the 7th April it was estimated that 26,000 UK workers had signed up to pick fruit and veg in the UK. Online job site Totaljobs has recorded an 83% increase in applications for farming roles. The Government has responded to the NFU’s request for furloughed workers to be allowed to work on UK farms and this is leading to increased applications.
It is anticipated that after Public Health England announce new health and safety guidelines on social distancing in farm settings (due the week beginning 13th April), that the Government will announce the development of a new portal to match furloughed and other workers with fruit and veg producers in need of labour.
Even if just 10% of the new cohort of UK fruit and veg workers stay in the industry after the crisis this still represents a significant expansion in the UK horticultural workforce going forward.