Government urged to introduce fruit pickers visa to rescue 'industry in turmoil'


Urgent action is required to ensure foreign fruit and vegetable pickers can continue to work in the UK post Brexit, ministers have been warned.

The farming industry and MPs have called for clarity on the rules that will apply to seasonal migrants after March 2019.

An estimated 80,000 seasonal pickers came to work in the UK last year and the industry expects that figure to rise to around 95,000 by 2019.

Tory MP Kirstene Hair, during a Commons debate, called for the introduction of a seasonal visa scheme as a matter of urgency, warning ministers that the industry could spiral into "turmoil".

She said: "With regards to a solution there is only one choice in my view, the introduction of a system that permits individuals from European and non-European states to come to the UK specifically to carry out this seasonal work."

She added: "Ahead of harvest 2018, it is imperative that we act now, our farmers cannot plan."

Pickers gather grapes at a vineyard (John Giles/PA)
Pickers gather grapes at a vineyard (John Giles/PA)

Ms Hair went on to explain that the foreign workforce was needed as there was not the workforce "willing to undertake the lifestyle necessary for harvesting crops" in the UK.

She said: "This is not labour that can be undertaken by the existing British workforce, we do not have the numbers in the rural areas which require them, nor do we have those who are willing to undertake the lifestyle necessary for harvesting crops.

"Early starts and intensive work is the norm and, as I said before, this is skilled work."

She added: "There's a producer who I shan't name, but who in two instances has attempted to find seasonal staff from the local workforce.

"On the first occasion the producer worked with the local job centre, advertised extensively on social media and indeed in the recruitment section of the local newspaper, there was a high volume of local applications and the producer went on to hire 90 workers.

"Within three weeks only 10 members of staff remained. The job is simply unattractive to the domestic workforce."

Ms Hair concluded by telling the frontbench that the farming community needed "clarity urgently".

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has previously said the case for a seasonal agriculture workers scheme after Brexit is "compelling" and accepted the farming sector would need "access to foreign workers" after Brexit.

Speaking later in the debate Labour's Kerry McCarthy, a former shadow environment secretary, said seasonal migrant labour is the "most pressing problem", with a shortage already existing, but is unconvinced that reintroducing a seasonal agriculture workers scheme would "in itself solve the problem".

She said: "Many people who would previously have done this work just don't want to do it, they don't need to do it anymore.

"The exchange rate, the uncertainty following the Brexit referendum, the feeling they're not welcome here, even the British weather means working elsewhere in the EU is a more attractive prospect."

Ms McCarthy said improved economic prospects in their own countries means they perhaps do not come to the UK, also telling MPs: "I just don't see how far we can carry this chase after cheaper labour, looking ever further afield.

"A year or two ago I was on a flight from Stansted to Moldova and that was full of Romanian workers clearly hopping on budget flights, coming over here to work and going back to their families at weekends.

"But clearly if we're looking further afield those budget flights, easyJet isn't going to bring in workers from Vietnam or Cambodia for £30 a time."

Conservative MP Helen Whately said growers in her Faversham and Mid Kent constituency would like to recruit British workers to pick and pack fruit, but only small numbers had come forward.

She said: "They know from experience that the local workforce does not supply the labour they need. Part of the problem, and it's a good thing, is we have very low unemployment.

"In my constituency there are about 700 people currently claiming jobseeker's allowance but in the season farmers in my constituency require a seasonal workforce of 5,000 to 10,000 workers."