Farms Suffering Slim Pickings of Seasonal Workers

07 September 2022 by Tom Townsend
blog author

Fruit and vegetables worth £22million have been wasted in the first half of this year due to the lack of labour required to pick them, according to a new study.

A survey conducted by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) highlighted this year’s harvest so far has been significantly impacted due to a lack of people available to pick the crops.

A total of 199 growers across England and Wales took part in the survey, collectively employing more than 22,000 seasonal workers. With the survey representing around a third of the UK horticulture sector, the NFU estimates the overall value of food wasted is in excess of a staggering £60million.

The country is already at a critical point as it faces the highest cost-of-living crisis in generations and this latest finding of workplace shortages places heavy pressure on the food and farming sector as it reels from major crop losses.

A total of 63 per cent of workers were recruited via the Seasonal Workers Scheme, with 33 per cent having already been involved in the scheme before and farmers expect a total of 69 per cent of workers to come through the scheme this year.

However, while the sector requires a total of 70,000 workers, just 38,000 visas have been made available for the 2022 Seasonal Workers Scheme. On average there is a 19 per cent reduction in production across the businesses, with growers expecting a further fall in production in 2023 of 4.4 per cent.

The survey also noted that 40 per cent of respondents are suffering crop losses as a result of labour shortages and on average so far this year, businesses are experiencing worker shortages of 14 per cent. This figure is based on actual recruitment and does not factor in the added effects of early leavers.

Alarmingly, 17 per cent of those pickers recruited failed to even turn up for their shifts and nine per cent left their contract early.

NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw said: “It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs.

“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg. Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to be leaving food unpicked.

“With the demand on the Seasonal Workers Scheme expected to increase again next year, it’s vital the scheme has the capacity to facilitate the people the sector needs to pick, pack and process the country’s fruit and vegetables. This means increasing the number of visas available to meet the sector’s needs and expanding it to a minimum of a five-year rolling scheme to enable growers to have the confidence to invest in their businesses – particularly given growth in the horticultural sector is a government ambition set out in the National Food Strategy.

“This survey has demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and veg growers to have access to the workforce they need. Expanding the Seasonal Workers Scheme will play a vital role in enabling that access and ensuring we don’t see this devastating level of food waste next year.”

Tom Townsend, Principal Consultant – Agriculture, Food and Beverage at Acre, said:Food waste is one of the greatest challenges in food and agri. Increased waste at farm level leads to rising prices for consumers, which we are seeing with rising inflation amid the cost-of-living crisis.

“Since the end of free-movement nearly two and a half years ago, we have not seen a suitable source of labour to cover the gap in migrant work which has been left; the Seasonal Workers Scheme lacks scale and farmers are struggling to attract local workers to cover the gap.

“We have also recently seen increased exploitation through the Seasonal Workers Scheme, with pickers coming from countries where staffing agencies are illegally charging fees to workers. It is vital that the government and farming community develop solutions which can be in place for next year, to ensure that these failures are not repeated.”

Tom focuses on mid-senior level Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability appointments across Europe. Previously, Tom focused on senior appointments within Procurement & Supply Chain, with a particular expertise in Consumer Goods across the DACH markets Tom joined Acre to continue the company’s international growth. He holds a first-class degree in Mathematics.