There are concerns within the UK growing industry Britain’s exit from the EU will cause labour shortages in the fruit and vegetable picking and packing industry.
Most picking and packing in the UK is done by migrant workers from Eastern Europe.
As well as long-term worries about the impact changes to free movement of labour will have, the British Growers Association (BGA) said it has had reports the slump in the value of the pound has already caused labour problems for British growers.
“Because the pound has fallen against the Euro it’s not as profitable [for European migrants] to come to the UK as it has been in previous years. And because there is a fruit harvest all across Europe at about this time they do have other options to go to,” said Jack Ward, chief executive at BGA.
At a BGA meeting on Wednesday, “set up precisely” to talk about Brexit, growers hope to create an action plan addressing the long-term effects changes to freedom of movement and EU funding will have.
Ward said there were alternatives if free movement of people from the EU ended. For example, the seasonal labour permit system in place before the Eastern bloc joined the free movement area “actually worked very successfully for a long period of time,” he said.
However, Ward said finding the domestic workers needed to pick and pack fruit and vegetables was not an alternative to migrant labour.
“There just aren’t the numbers of people about to do [the job], that’s the reality. If you look at East Anglia [one of the main growing areas], it has one of the lowest unemployment rates outside London,” he said.
Ward also said inflexible pricing meant paying labourers more was unrealistic.
“I wish that it were that simple,” he said. “You’re pretty luck if you’re seeing static prices at the moment. In some instances you’re just seeing prices coming down year on year and everything getting tougher and tougher.
“The really serious concern, medium to long term, is that [growers] go: ‘This is too complicated, the margin is too small, I’m going to stop doing it’, and we export that production to other parts of Europe,” said Ward.
“And with it we export jobs and we export investment,” he added.
UK growers receive about €40m in funding from the EU. Ward said despite this being a “relatively small” amount, any funding “we can’t access makes EU produce that much more competitive”.
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