Hundreds of migrant workers from Eastern Europe are being flown to the UK to pick and sort farm produce that would otherwise rot in the fields.
The first of several planes carrying foreign farm food pickers landed at an empty Stansted airport, north of London, yesterday (April 16).
Around 180 Romanian workers – wearing protective face masks and gloves and complying with social distancing rules – were bussed to a 7,000 hectare farm in East Anglia to begin work on Monday (April 20) where their experience and skills will be used to help newly recruited workers.
The government has called on Britons furloughed by the coronavirus to join a “land-army” to help keep the country fed during the pandemic and to avoid the waste of millions of tonnes of farm produce.
‘Much-needed seasonal workers’
“Relying on workers from Eastern Europe is nothing new,” says the Sun. “Every year, around 90,000 people from countries such as Romania help pick the summer harvest.”
However, lockdown measures taken around the world have compounded concerns caused by Brexit and led to new fears for Britain’s harvest, with the farming sector struggling to hire workers, and experts warning of a potential disaster for the agricultural food growing sector.
The Sun’s describes the Romanian workforce as “much-needed seasonal workers”, a marked difference in tone given the pro-Brexit newspaper’s normal use of emotive language to report migrant stories.
Just four days ago (April 13), the paper reported a “Human Tide” and “massive migrant crisis” that “will hit Europe”, and in March the Sun plugged a story about foreign workers being quarantined for coronavirus, with the caption: “Migrant risk”.
Now, however, the normally hostile paper quotes an industry boss praising the migrant workforce who “will underpin our efficiency as we train up the new British staff.
“Without them we would have crops rotting in the field.”
‘Feed the Nation’ signs up 30,000 – but it’s not enough
The ‘Feed the Nation’ plea for British workers and volunteers to tend the fields resulted in 30,000 signing up – a figure 50,000 short of the 80,000 workers needed to ensure harvests are picked and delivered to retailers, according to the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).
President of the CLA Mark Bridgeman, said the number responding to the “call to ‘Feed the Nation’, through the Covid-19 pandemic” is “great news”, but added, “this excellent response is not enough”.
Bridgeman said: “Where it is possible and safe to do so in the current circumstances, bringing in workers from overseas to help meet the shortfall is the right thing to do if we want to keep the supermarkets stocked.
“However, we would strongly encourage people from across the country to keep coming forward and signing up with recruitment agencies. There are good jobs available and great opportunities for those currently furloughed, unemployed or students.”
450,000 new unemployment claims
The Telegraph reports 32,000 have signed up to the ‘Feed the Nation’ campaign, but only 4,000 have made themselves available to interview for jobs offering around £350 per week, for 40 hours work.
The paper says “the recruitment of overseas workers is despite rising unemployment numbers due to the coronavirus lockdown” during which the UK which has seen “around 450,000 new unemployment benefit claimants being recorded.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We need to mobilise the British workforce. I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”
‘There are no easy solutions’
The British Growers Association (BGA) said 12,000 pickers are needed from mid-April for the asparagus, lettuce and salads crop. At least 30,000 more are needed next month for strawberries and other produce, with tens of thousands more workers needed as other crops ripen through to autumn.
The BGA website states: “There is no doubt that the issue of labour is being taken extremely seriously within Government. Everyone now understands the connection between labour and the continuity of food supplies. There are no easy solutions here.
“But no effort is being spared in exploring options and looking for solutions to ease the problems as we move further into the fresh produce season.”
Seasonal workers shortage is not a new problem
In 2017, when a shortage of 4,300 migrant farm workers – caused by fears arising from Brexit and the fall in sterling’s value – left produce rotting in fields, a National Farmers Union (NFU) survey found just 0.6% of seasonal workers came from the UK with more than 99% coming from Eastern Europe.
When the survey was reported in 2018, Minette Batters, then NFU deputy president, called for “desperately needed government action” on seasonal workers, calling it “the number one issue for growers.”
She continued: “We don’t see it as an immigration problem – it’s about people that come here, are fully regulated and go home again. The Conservative party seem to have taken a very hard line approach.”
‘The government is not acknowledging the scale of the issue’
Politicians acknowledged the scale of the problem in 2018, with the chair of the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee, Neil Parish commenting: “The nationwide shortage of labour is becoming an agricultural crisis for UK farms.
“It is unacceptable that perfectly good food is rotting in fields. At a time of uncertainty around our future trading relationships [caused by Brexit], we should be increasing our domestic food security rather than our reliance on imported foodstuffs.”
Parish said: “The government is not acknowledging the scale of the issue.”
The Commons committee called for “urgent measures” in April 2017 and and launched an enquiry in February 2018.