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Government ignoring labour crisis facing fruit and veg sector

Fruit and vegetables could be left “rotting in fields” due to labour shortages that have “got worse” since the UK voted to leave the European Union.

An inquiry into the agriculture and horticulture labour markets, carried out by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, concluded that a crisis is on the cards unless urgent measures are taken to fill significant gaps in supply.

Fruit and veg producers have traditionally relied heavily on foreign workers, but many were struggling with a shortfall even before the Brexit vote last June. Concerns have now intensified for a number of reasons, including: changes in the value of sterling; increased living standards in Eastern Europe; the desirability of work in other growth sectors, including hospitality; and a feeling among foreign workers of “not being welcome”.

“Employers told us that when recruiting in Romania and Bulgaria previously they had needed to speak to three people to recruit one member of staff, now they were having to speak to eight,” the committee noted in its report. The staff that could be recruited are also often of lower quality and poorer language skills, the committee was told.

However, ministers quizzed during the inquiry claimed there was no shortage and no crisis; concerns have been exaggerated following reports in the press, they suggested.

George Eustice and Robert Goodwill, ministers of state at DEFRA and the Home Office respectively, claimed “there is no suggestion that there is a problem … until we leave the European Union … nothing has changed”.

The “marked differences” between the government’s viewpoint and the experiences of those on the ground “surprised” the committee.

“We do not share the confidence of the government that the sector does not have a problem,” the committee concluded. “On the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.”