The UK could lose all its fruit and vegetable production if the government can’t guarantee the overseas labour supply on which the industry depends, one of the nation’s biggest growers has warned.
John Shropshire, chairman of one of the UK’s largest producers of salads and vegetables, G’s, told the Guardian the entire industry could simply move abroad.
Freedom of movement
“If we don’t have freedom of movement and they don’t replace it with a permit scheme then the industry will just close down” in the UK, he said.
About 90% of British fruit, vegetables and salads is picked, graded and packed by 60,000 to 70,000 workers from overseas, mostly from Eastern Europe.
G’s employs 2,500 seasonal workers and also has farms in Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Senegal.
“The government has to make a decision: either we bring the people to the work or we take the work to the people,” Shropshire said. “The government has to decide does it want [the UK] to produce food or not – that is their decision.”
“What is absolutely certain is that, without foreign labour, there are going to be massive labour market shortages” – Centre for Migration Research
Angus Davison, chairman of Haygrove, a major berry and cherry producer employing 800 seasonal workers, told the paper that without that labour, growing could not continue in the UK.
“We would move it to the continent,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to operate here in the UK because we would not be able to harvest the crops.”
Half of Haygrove’s production is already in Portugal and South Africa.
“Do you want all your fresh produce to come from foreign countries?” he said. “There would be more risks around its security, we wouldn’t be as food secure as a nation.”
Davison said that before the Brexit poll, 15 workers a day applied to his company’s offices in Romania and Bulgaria, but this has dropped now to one or two.
“We are genuinely concerned. People over there are feeling they are not wanted here,” he said.
Erica Consterdine, from the University of Sussex’s Centre for Migration Research, told the paper: “What is absolutely certain is that, without foreign labour, there are going to be massive labour market shortages. I’m not sure the government quite realises just how reliant these sectors are on EU labour.”
“It’s looking pretty bad in terms of the security of the food supply chain. It would be disastrous,” she said.
“I can’t really see how the industry can survive in the long term without freedom of movement of workers, without reintroducing some kind of agricultural workers scheme. Economically, looking at the sector, it seems absolutely crazy not to.”