There is less than a year left to put a new seasonal workers scheme in place according to growers’ organisation English Apples and Pears. “Without it, we face catastrophe,” said chief executive Steven Munday, announcing the results of an independent study into the post-Brexit labour requirements of the sector at the National Fruit Show.
The UK needs around 10,300 seasonal workers each year to manage and harvest an orchard-grown fruit crop of 300,000 tonnes, worth over £180 million, according to the report by consultancy Andersons Midlands.
“The 2019 crop – and with it the future of the industry – is at stake,” said Munday. “Until now the vast majority of our labour has come from Europe, but there are currently no post-Brexit guarantees that this will continue. It is no use waiting until March 2019 when we leave the EU to see what happens. We have to organise our workforce about a year in advance, so September 2018 is the deadline for a seasonal workers scheme to be in place. Without this, the consequences for growers, consumers and the environment will be devastating.”
According to the study, about 30% of UK demand for orchard fruits (apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots) is met with fruit grown here. The loss of this volume would increase imports, potentially raise prices, and add to environmental costs. The report notes that growers face “insurmountable difficulties” in recruiting UK workers in rural areas, with only a small fraction of the seasonal labour force provided by UK nationals. By far the majority come from the European Union. Labour accounts for up to 50% of the costs of production for growers, so having continued access to a competitive labour market is essential for the continuing prosperity and growth of UK orchard fruits.
“UK orchard fruit is a success story. Volumes grown here are up by 27% since 1997 and we’re predicting more growth for the future. In fact we’ll need 11,500 workers by 2021. All of this is now in jeopardy unless the labour situation is resolved,” added Munday. “We are counting down to catastrophe.”