European fruit pickers shun Britain

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Recruitment agencies are warning that they cannot secure the number of workers needed by British farmers to pick their fruit and vegetables. Over half of recruitment companies could not find the labor even in the “quiet” first months of this year, the Association of Labor Providers says The National Farmers Union reports that last year there was a 17% drop in seasonal workers coming to the UK. This led to some valuable produce being left to rot in the fields.

Ninety-nine percent of seasonal workers on British farms come from Eastern Europe. Two-thirds of these come from Romania and Bulgaria. Kent-based AG Recruitment and Management works in Romania to supply labor for 80 growers across the UK. Over the next few months it needs to find 4,000 people to pick strawberries, raspberries, and eventually apples and pears. The agency is nowhere near that target, and is having to call farmers to say it will not have enough pickers for them.

According to co-director, Estera Amesz, the numbers of people wanting to work in Britain fell sharply after Brexit. A key issue was the fall in the value of the pound. She says it is also down to the uncertainty; people aren’t sure what documents they now need. “We used to have queues outside our office in Bucharest. Thirty to 40 people would come a day. Now, on a good day, it’s a handful. We used to take the crème de la crème. Now, we are scraping the barrel.”

The firm runs criminal history checks and the candidates do dexterity tests, but Mrs Amesz says her company has had to widen the net. She says she now considers those that, “have two hands and two legs, and stand a 50% chance of making it”. Rather than people coming to the company offices, they now have to travel deep into the Romanian countryside to sell the idea of coming to work in the UK. At one presentation in the tiny village of Barlad, close to the border with Moldova, 30 people turn up, but only five sign up.

Alina Stan, 31, decides to make the journey. She has come to the UK before to pick flowers and fruit. With the money, she’s building a house for her and her family. But as soon as she can, she’ll stop coming. She says: “We hope in the next two years to be able to finish our home. But leaving my children behind is very difficult.”

In a statement, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Defra and the Home Office are working closely to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU. “We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.”

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