Written evidence submitted by British Summer Fruits Limited (LS0017)
Tuesday 12th October 2021
Evidence for the EFRA Committee
Labour availability in the UK Fresh Produce Sector
British Summer Fruits is the Trade body that represents the UK soft fruit industry and its growers. Our membership comprises circa 95% of commercial fresh berry growers in the UK, and our role is to represent those growers, and to promote our produce to consumers through the Love Fresh Berries campaign.
The current estimate of the number of seasonal workers in UK horticulture is 70,000, and the berry industry employs circa 29,000 of these staff. In spite of large-scale investment by growers in production systems that reduce labour needs, and make workers more productive, expanding demand for our fresh berries has meant that the number of workers required to harvest the increasing level of production has not fallen, nor is likely to fall in the foreseeable future.
Innovations to increase productivity include large scale investment in “tabletop” i.e. raised strawberry production in bags of coir substrate which makes the job of picking strawberries much more comfortable as it is done from a standing position, and more productive than the traditional “in the ground” crop by typically a factor of doubling productivity per person. Around 90% of our crops are now grown on table top systems. Raspberry crops are also labour intensive at harvest. Here growers are growing new generation raspberry varieties which are large fruiting , on substrate pot systems, which again give large productivity gains by again up to 100%.
Automation can and has been introduced in to packing systems once the crop has been harvested and chilled, however harvest remains a job that still has to be done by hand, and the activity represents by far the largest proportion of the total manual labour needs of a berry farm. Robotics are being developed with the support of our growers, and to have the potential to replace a proportion of this manual labour. However even the development programmes are expecting the creation of a fully effective picking robot to be some years off. This then has to be followed up by the establishment of a manufacturing capacity, and the deployment of many thousands of robots, meaning that any meaningful replacement of manual labour by robotics in our industry is still many years off.
This year saw several changes in the make-up of our seasonal work force. In 2020 a combination of the closure of many sectors such as construction and hospitality, the furlough scheme, and a large-scale campaign to recruit UK resident worker to farms saw an increase from a recent 0.5 to1 % of the workforce in past years to around 8%. In 2020. However in 2021, and in spite of great efforts by farms to recruit locally, we saw this fall back to 1% again as all other sectors are open, and are also short of staff.
We dispute claims that farms are not trying to recruit locally, or that paying more would attract more UK resident staff. Harvest workers already earn on average far more than workers in say retail or hospitality. The fact is that seasonal work on farms is for a number of reasons unattractive to UK residents. It is seasonal, the post ends in the autumn, and the vast majority of people in the UK aspire to a permanent job as they have financial commitments. The work is on farms which are in rural areas, and the vast majority of job seekers are in city centres or urban areas usually many miles from the nearest berry farm. Because we are harvesting in the warmest time of the year work starts early to avoid the heat of the afternoon, which again makes travel to work hard if not impossible for staff who are not resident on the farm. All this means that there is no realistic prospect of recruiting a meaningful proportion of our seasonal workforce from UK residents, now, or in the future.
The next big change in 2021 was a dramatic fall in the percentage of “returnees” from the EU in the workforce. The new post Brexit immigration rules mean that only those who hold pre-settled or settled status may return from the EU to work in the UK without a Visa. Any new workers from the EU would have to apply via the Pilot SAWS Scheme and pay for a Visa, which is unattractive when the rest of the EU can be worked in without this cost. The pre-settled / settled status concession is not and was never intended to be a source of seasonal workers, it is a short / medium term route for EU nationals to settle in the UK and work full time here. Not surprisingly, given this, the number of returnees from the EU fell dramatically in 2021. On average the workforce was 75% EU returnees in past years, this year with the pre-settled / settled status requirement it fell to 45-50%. We expect similar falls in 2022 to probably around 30% of the total workforce needed, and further falls to 0% in the following years.
Because of this substantial fall in EU returnee workers farms in 2021 have been short of staff, with the shortages of labour getting worse as the season went on. The percentage shortfalls vary from sector to sector and farm to farm but were substantial, resulting in crop waste and financial loss at a time when farms are already suffering huge increases in all costs and severely squeezed or non-existent profit margins. Without the increase in SAWS Pilot numbers to 30,00 the situation on farms in 2021 would have been disastrous. Give the inevitable large-scale fall in numbers of EU workers again in 2022, a substantially expanded SAWS scheme will be vital in the short and medium term if we are to harvest our crops and not see both large scale shortages of product, and large numbers of business failures in our sector.
As well as being called for as part of the proposed National Food strategy, positive and prompt action to support our need for seasonal labour will be critical to prevent shortages of fresh berries. If our UK industry fails as a result of government immigration policy or government inaction in taking measures to support us, we as a nation will not be able to import fresh berries to substitute for the lost production. Ignoring the loss of around 3,000 full time jobs our farms provide in the UK, our contribution to rural economies, and the highly undesirable increase in food miles, we will a have high prices and very little product on supermarket shelves as mainland Europe produces sufficient volume for its own market and does not produce a surplus for a sudden and massive increase in UKs demand.