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EXCL Crops could be ‘left to rot’ during coronavirus outbreak due to shortage of overseas workers, MPs warn

There could be a shortfall of 80,000 seasonal workers, industry experts have warned (PA)

3 min read

Crops could be “left to rot” in fields as coronavirus travel restrictions lead to a shortage of seasonal workers, MPs have warned.

Opposition parties have called on the Government to do more to support overseas workers and help farmers recruit.

They say the end of free movement due to Brexit, plus travel restrictions brought in as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, have left farmers in crisis.

Farmer's leaders' said the agricutural sector could face a shortage of 80,000 labourers this summer if the Government failed to intervene.

A National Farmers Union spokesperson said the industry was “extremely concerned” about its ability to hire workers, while the Country Land and Business Association called on the Government to provide “urgent” assistance.

Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard told PoliticsHome: “[Farmers] are absolutely right to be concerned.

“This is not a new problem, it’s been made worse because of the coronavirus.

“Under the Seasonal Workers Pilot the Government’s limited farmers to hire only 10,000 workers this year when we need 80,000. 

He continued: “The gap isn’t being filled, but I’ve spoken to farmers and those in the supply chain who are really worried the usual Bulgarian and seasonal agricultural workers are simply not coming. 

“They’ve been put off by Brexit and coronavirus means in some cases that they can’t travel.”

Labour MP Rosie Duffield also warned that farmers were “struggling to recruit” the workers they needed amid the pandemic. 

She said: “Virtually all of seasonal farm labour is sourced from overseas, and the Government’s seasonal workers pilot scheme simply doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to provide the necessary number of workers.

“Quite simply, if farmers don’t get the workforce they need, then we’re going to see fields and fields of unpicked fruit and vegetables being left to rot because there’s no-one to bring in the harvest. 

“British farmers need urgent assurances from the Government that they will have access to the workforce they need to ensure food reaches supermarket shelves.”

Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the UK risked food shortages if it didn’t recruit and retain more overseas workers.

He told PoliticsHome: “There isn’t a food shortage in this country at the moment… but we may well find ourselves in that situation if we start seeing reduction in UK food production.

“In those parts of the country where arable fruit growing and so on is the major part of the agricultural economy, they hugely depend on overseas labour and the reality of the last few years is that we’ve lost a lot of those people. 

Mr Pollard echoed Mr Farron’s calls for a “charm offensive”, with both MPs calling for the government to do more to attract overseas workers.

“What the Government needs to be doing now is sending a really clear message to those workers, especially from Romania and Bulgaria, that they’re needed, that they’re wanted and that they’ll be welcomed," he said.

“And within that, that means that their health will be protected during the period of crisis."

But Sarah Boparan, Operations Director at seasonal recruiters Hops, said she was confident that British workers could fill part of the shortfall.

She said: “The call to the UK for the need for labour has been phenomenally successful, we’ve had 8000 people in three and a half days apply. 

“It’s upsetting to see that a lot of them have been impacted by Covid-19 in their usual employment routes, but we’re really optimistic that we can hopefully line them up with a job to help through this difficult period and help our farms at the same time.”

A shortfall was still likely, she added, but could be mitigated if the Government changed the rules around recruiting non-EU agricultural workers to allow more companies to participate.

She also called on ministers to offer financial support to farmers to help them hire and train less experienced agricultural workers.

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