UK fruit and vegetable growers are recruiting seasonal harvesting workers from countries as far away as Morocco and Mongolia after the invasion of Ukraine prevented workers from travelling to Britain.
About 30,000 temporary labourers were recruited last year under a visa scheme that was ramped up after Brexit ended freedom of movement between the UK and European Union.
Two-thirds of workers hired under the scheme came from Ukraine. Many are now unable to travel to the UK to ease the shortage of farm labour.
Recruiters in the agricultural industry said they are struggling to cover the shortfall of experienced workers and have looked to countries such as the Philippines.
In addition to paperwork, these new workers will need to be trained and will therefore be less productive than experienced pickers.
Nick Ottewell, a director at salad grower LJ Betts, said none of the 40 Ukrainian workers who were there in 2021 were expected to return after visa processing in Kyiv broke down because of the invasion.
“The agencies have been channelling all their efforts in terms of their networking and infrastructure into Ukraine since [the seasonal workers’ scheme] restarted and that’s all been shattered,” he told the Financial Times. “Our industry is in a mess.”
Ukrainian males between the ages of 15 and 60 are not allowed to leave following the invasion. Many stay to fight for the armed forces or help with caring for family members.
The National Farmers’ Union this month said that Ukrainian workers had been essential to fruit and veg businesses over the past few years in roles such as planting, picking, packing and grading produce.
“UK Visas and Immigration [agency] is prioritising Ukraine Family Scheme applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine, and so applications for study, work and family visas may take longer to process,” a British government representative said.
Meanwhile, thousands of people, mainly women and children, continue to enter the UK as refugees.
About 15,800 visas have been issued under the Ukraine Family Scheme as of 5pm on Tuesday, the Home Office said.