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BREXIT: Local fruit farms face picking crisis

Friday 16th July 2021

A TIGHTER labour market in the wake of Brexit has resulted in a plunge in seasonal work requests from Eastern Europe to local fruit farms.

Local businesses estimate that 95% of produce is picked by foreign workers but only those with permits will be allowed into the UK or those who have already settled here.

Stephen Taylor of Winterwood Farms Ltd in East Sutton has suffered a drop of 90% in the number of applications received each day from abroad.

As the summer harvest starts in earnest, he said: "We are right at the brink now."

The Government had always pledged to look out for fruit-growers with their needs for pickers.

The industry itself has claimed the number of permits allowing foreign workers to come here fell far short of the number required to keep the industry going.

Critics say the farms want overseas labour simply because it is cheaper and they generally live on-site.

British Summer Fruits, the umbrella organisation for growers, said that staff costs can represent up to 60% of all expenditure.

The government-approved seasonal workers’ (SWP) pilot has been expanded into 2021 after the launch two years ago and four recruiters are handling the bulk of the government work. One company, Canterbury-based Pro-Force, had a turnover of £65m in 2019 but an overall profit of less than £80,000.

This allows 30,000 migrant workers to come into the UK to work temporarily.

Independent recruiting agent Paul Haralambie, of Barming, said 30,000 permits cannot meet the estimated industry needs of more than 100,000.

Mr Haralambie, pictured, a Romanian national, said: "The pilot scheme quota is not enough for our sector. It's very tough this year. Clients who haven't been in touch for a while are calling me now but I can't help them."

Mr Haralambie brings in around 50 pickers each year and himself works as a harvest manager.

Jane Peckham, recruitment manager at Lenham’s Clock House Farm, said a growth in the business means she will be seeking local workers but not necessarily for fruit-picking. The farm needs around 600 employees and, this year, its quota has been reached.

Last year, many locals who applied for picking work during lockdown were disappointed, some claiming a perception within the industry that they could not keep up with the Eastern European workers and were unreliable.