Written evidence submitted by West Sussex Growers' Association (LS0005)
EFRA Committee – Evidence – 29th September 2021
West Sussex Growers’ Association (WSGA) represents business members of the Commercial Horticultural Industry in West Sussex; predominantly in the districts of Arun and Chichester.
The Horticultural Industry, located in the West Sussex Coastal Plain, has developed here due to its all-year-round mild climate and unique high light levels.
Fresh produce sales from these businesses exceeds £1billion per annum with over 10,000 employed. Most crops grown are all-year-round or long season crops in high-tech greenhouses.
WSGA horticultural businesses include food producers and ornamental plant growers; supplying fresh produce and plants direct to supermarkets, retailers, garden centres and the food service industry, 365 days per year.
2. Shortage of Labour
Since the advent of Brexit, leading to restrictions with access to workers from the EU, problems with labour shortages have become much worse. WSGA surveys carried out regularly throughout the summer show an average weekly shortfall of between 10% to 12.5% of the required workforce.
WSGA members have engaged with Job Centre Plus representatives from Bognor Regis and Chichester to further explore ways and means of attracting more job seekers into the local Horticultural Industry. This has had very limited success. We understand that local unemployment remains relatively low.
Horticultural businesses also advertise continuously in an attempt to attract local people to take up employment with them; but again, with little success.
WSGA and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) continue to press Government to increase the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) numbers from the current 30,000 to 70,000; so far without success.
Competition for the very limited numbers of workers amongst other sectors has intensified; with some businesses offering large signing on fees and other incentives to recruit staff.
A points-based Skilled Worker route was introduced on 1st January 2021 as part of the new immigration system. This route will include an element of tradeable points, where any occupation on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) will be allocated 20 tradeable points; this effectively reduces the relevant salary thresholds by 20%; however, the minimum salary for “starter” positions should be reduced from £25,600 to £20,000 to meet the immediate needs of the agriculture, horticulture and food and drink industries.
Throughout 2021, most horticultural businesses in West Sussex have struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of workers to carry out full time and seasonal operations. It should be stressed that this concerns full time as well as seasonal positions; and also, all skills levels; including: operational picking and packing jobs, team leaders and supervisors, drivers, machine operators and technicians.
Basic wage rates and bonus systems have increased dramatically throughout 2021 as businesses attempt to attract the limited number of employees available.
Due to Brexit issues; many European workers, who traditionally returned year after year to the same employers, have not returned.
In addition to the problem of labour shortages; supply chain issues are causing further problems with disruption to incoming and outgoing deliveries. The shortage of HGV drivers is causing serious disruption to the distribution system.
4. Business Case Examples
Throughout this year; WSGA business members have reported weekly shortages of labour averaging between 10% and 12.5% of the workforce. This has led to:
WSGA has many business case examples of the points raised in this paper and would be pleased to host a visit from members of the EFRA Committee to discuss this in more detail with business owners.
Here are just a few examples:
Grower A – Abandoned over 60tonnes (£250,000) of strawberries due to be supplied to a leading supermarket. Multi-million pounds expansion plans shelved.
Grower B – Major grower and supplier to UK supermarkets has had to pick fruit less often leading to lost yield and quality. Multi-million pounds expansion plans shelved.
Grower C – Courgettes left unharvested in the field.
Grower D – Insufficient staff in the packhouse to fill customers orders. Supermarket deliveries missed. Supply chain disrupted due to shortage of HGV drivers.
5. Conclusion and Recommendations
In the meantime, access to labour remains the number one priority. It is essential that the Government returns to a position where, with minimal rules and regulations, UK agricultural and horticultural businesses can employ non-UK citizens to fill seasonal and non-seasonal positions.