The supply of seasonal workers required for a successful harvest in the UK is “already in danger” for the year 2018, according to British farmers.

A report from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) – which represents farmers in England and Wales – highlighted that 75% of seasonal labour in the horticulture sector alone is recruited from Romania and Bulgaria.

Moreover, 63% of workers in red and white meat processing plants hail from the EU, as well as 85% of official vets in approved meat establishments.

The union is warning the UK government to provide clarity on EU immigration as soon as possible to prevent a labour shortage in the farming and food processing sectors.

NFU President, Meurig Raymond, said: “The forthcoming Immigration Bill must recognise the importance of migration for certain sectors and the government must recognise the strategic importance of the UK farming industry as the bedrock of the UK’s food and drink industry, worth £109 billion to the economy.

“The NFU would like to see the government consult extensively with the farming industry on this issue to ensure a solution is reached and as soon as possible.”

A damning report

The report – Vision for the future of farming: Access to a competent and flexible workforce – noted that British people were generally unwilling to work in agriculture because it was perceived as low paid, low skilled and lacking career prospects.

It warned that the entire food supply chain was at risk, saying: “Creating an immigration system that recognises and meets the specific requirements of the agricultural and wider food industries will be critical if farming is to continue to deliver the irreplaceable services it provides to the British public.”

Raymond added: “It is crucial that the government addresses these concerns immediately to ensure that farming has access to a competent and reliable workforce, now and post-Brexit.

“A solution, such as a suite of visa or permit schemes, is urgently needed to avoid losing a critical number of workers that could jeopardise future harvests and food production.

“Recruiting overseas workers is not something that can be done instantly. It takes time for businesses to recruit and, for seasonal work, they can typically plan nine months in advance.

“The supply of seasonal workers for the 2018 and 2019 seasons is already in danger and the government must, as a priority, establish a system to enable sufficient recruitment of seasonal labour before the UK leaves the EU.”

The report follows research from the NFU that showed England and Wales have already suffered a 17% decline in the number of seasonal workers required for the harvesting of fruit and vegetables this season.

Highlights from the report:

  • 75% of seasonal labour in the horticultural sector is recruited from Romania and Bulgaria;
  • 35-40% of staff working on farms in the integrated egg industry are from the EU-27;
  • 58% of workers in seasonal poultry production are from outside the UK;
  • 56% of dairy farmers surveyed in 2016 said they employed labour from outside the UK over the previous five years;
  • 85% of official vets in approved meat establishments are non-UK nationals;
  • 63% of workers in red and white meat processing plants are from the EU-27.