UK farmers' fear over lack of foreign workers

The gap in labour supply is already costing them money because they have to pay workers more to keep them

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20:  In this photo illustration a 'Back British Farming' sticker adorns an apple during the National Farmers Union annual conference at the International Conference Centre on February 20, 2018 in Birmingham, England. Earlier Environment secretary Michael Gove revealed more on his plans for post-Brexit agriculture to the National Farmers' Union (NFU) conference.  (Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Some are handing out bonuses or raising pay, others are subsidising housing or upgrading mobile homes to include showers and central heating.

Whatever they're doing to attract or retain workers, British farmers are increasingly worried about a labour shortage.

Brexit is delivering on at least one of the priorities for its ardent supporters as Europeans start to stay away and earnings for workers in Britain picked up by the most in a year.

UK pay growth is still slower than inflation, which is running at 3 per cent. Private sector pay gains accelerated to 2.6 per cent from 2.5 per cent.

Employment rose by 330,000 last year and the gain was largely driven by UK nationals, the ONS said.

The outlook for interest rates also depends on whether any pickup in wages is matched by productivity improvements, and there were some positive signs in the latest data.

Output per hour gained 0.8 per cent in the fourth quarter following a 0.9 per cent gain in the previous three months, which was the most in six years.

But if Brexit is delivering on that priority, it also means it's delivering on one of the warnings: that labour costs would increase and supply chains would get interrupted.

Employment in the UK among nationals from eight eastern states including Poland and Lithuania fell for the first time since 2009, the ONS said, down by 1 per cent, and there was a 1.5 per cent drop among non-EU citizens. Overall, employment of non-UK nationals rose by 3.1 per cent, half the pace seen in 2016.

It's the biggest sign yet that the days of plentiful and cheap labour for the agriculture industry are over. The decline of migrant workers also doesn't bode well for the wider post-Brexit economy. Industries such as fishing, health and retail also depend on recruiting non-UK nationals.

“There were all sorts of layers of additional cost that growers certainly last year were having to add in order to get their workers and get them to stay,” Worcestershire apple and hop farmer Ali Capper said last week on the sidelines of the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham, where delegates demanded solutions from the government. When you’re reliant on staff coming from abroad, “you can’t just replace them”, she said.

Some estimates show 98 per cent of temporary harvest workers are recruited from elsewhere in the EU. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a leading figure in the campaign to leave the EU, told the NFU that he now wants special immigration rules to allow foreign farm workers to stay.


Read more:

British farmers fear crop loss as EU workers dwindle

Britain looks to robots to work the fields if cheap labour Brexits


The lack of clarity over government policy doesn’t impress poultry farmer David Brass as he struggles to find eastern European workers to help rear his 135,000 chickens in Cumbria, north-west England. With UK unemployment near a 42-year-low, he may end up relying on robots to help collect and pack eggs.

“When you jump off a cliff and you find out the parachute works half way down, that’s not the way to do it,” Mr Brass, who also was at the NFU conference, said of the EU withdrawal process. “We don’t have a clue.”

Online grocer Ocado is struggling to find enough drivers to transport produce to customers, causing sales growth to slow last quarter. With EU nationals making up two-thirds of the permanent workforce in the UK’s food and drink supply chains, according to the British Retail Consortium, that squeeze could intensify all the way up to consumers.

For Bill Quan, who farms 800 acres of land in south-west Herefordshire, the gap in labour supply is already costing him money because he has to pay workers more to keep them.

“Previously for our potato farming we never had a problem of people not turning up at our farms for work,” he said at the conference.

“People just kept coming, but now that’s not the case.”