Before coronavirus and the lockdown struck, farmers reliant on seasonal workers from overseas no doubt thought that Brexit was the main threat to their ability to harvest and supply fruit and veg to fulfil their supermarket contracts. Last summer many were unwilling to travel to the UK for their seasonal work as they felt unwelcome. And that was before any legal restrictions had taken effect, and against the backdrop of a proposed seasonal workers scheme to enable at least a proportion of the required workforce to continue to provide the much needed labour.
Add to this the many issues caused by the pandemic and the ability of farmers to source suitable seasonal workers looks even more precarious. The Government is encouraging Britons to form a “Land Army” to feed the nation and have said that furloughed workers are able to take a job in agriculture if their job contract allows them to take other work. But many employment contracts prohibit additional work in “normal times” so I suspect very few employers will have made this relaxation as part of their furlough operation.
Even if legally possible, how realistic is it to expect those whose working day normally consists of sitting at a desk to spend many hours a day in physically demanding labour? Many newspapers have reported that the tens of thousands of expressions of interest initially lodged resulted in a tiny proportion of people actually beginning work, and far fewer of them actually completing a week’s work, let alone the several months required.
Attempts to fly in further experienced workers from Romania to supplement the original group recruited by G’s vegetable producers were frustrated when Romania prevented its citizens from leaving.
So at the time of writing, it seems that we have a real danger of shortages of certain seasonal foods. And that the Government’s attempts to solve the problem are just empty rhetoric.