UK farms race to recruit harvest pickers as Ukrainians trapped by battle

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UK fruit and vegetable growers are scrambling to recruit seasonal harvesting employees from nations together with Morocco and Mongolia after Ukrainians, who made up most of final 12 months’s recruits, have been prevented from coming by the Russian invasion.

Some 67 per cent of just about 30,000 individuals recruited below the seasonal employees’ scheme in 2021 got here from Ukraine, after Brexit ended free motion to the UK from the EU, beforehand the principle supply of farm labour. One other 8 per cent got here from Russia, official knowledge present.

That has compelled recruiters to look elsewhere as the principle harvesting season approaches and visa processors battle with the added workload of the Ukrainian refugee schemes.

George Eustice, atmosphere secretary, mentioned on Tuesday that “clearly these [Ukrainian] individuals aren’t going to return this 12 months. Most of them are literally staying to struggle for his or her nation”.

Talking on the Meals and Drink Federation’s annual convention, he added: “The 4 operators that run that scheme have been taking a look at different prospects together with nations like Morocco and Bulgaria.”

Nick Ottewell, farming director at Kent salad grower LJ Betts, mentioned 40 Ukrainian employees who labored there in 2021 had been resulting from return this 12 months, however one had been killed within the battle and the rest didn’t count on to achieve the farm, for causes together with an absence of visa processing amenities in Kyiv.

He had managed to recruit 38 Romanians to interchange them below the visa scheme, arriving in April, however these new employees would require coaching and due to this fact be much less productive than skilled pickers, including to the farm’s monetary burden.

“The [recruitment] companies have been channelling all their efforts by way of their networking and infrastructure into Ukraine since [the seasonal workers’ scheme] restarted and that’s all been shattered,” he mentioned. “Our business is in a large number.”

The seasonal employees’ scheme, a variant of a programme in place till 2013, was restarted in pilot kind in 2019 and has ramped up post-Brexit.

Justin Emery, director at Fruitful Jobs, one of many recruitment companies working the scheme, mentioned his firm was recruiting in Mongolia, Tajikistan and the Philippines.

Some Ukrainians and Russians employed earlier than the February invasion have been nonetheless in a position to work, he mentioned, however many Ukrainians had both joined the nation’s military or have been staying to look after household. The nation is stopping males of combating age from leaving.

Russians, in the meantime, can’t pay for working visas due to sanctions which have minimize off the Swift and Mastercard cost programs.

Emery mentioned the UK visa service was occupied with dealing with functions by Ukrainian refugees, main the processing of seasonal employees’ visas to grind to a halt as the principle harvesting season looms. “We’ve been assured that may change over the subsequent couple of weeks. It wants to alter quickly,” he mentioned.

“We’re solely six weeks off our primary season kicking off. We’ll be going into the tender fruit season, with strawberry and raspberry selecting. Asparagus has began this week, and there will likely be planting of winter greens.”

The Nationwide Farmers’ Union this month mentioned that “Ukrainian employees have been important to fruit and veg companies over the previous few years . . . [carrying out] important roles planting, selecting, packing and grading contemporary produce.” It has additionally referred to as for the scheme to be expanded to 40,000 locations this 12 months.

A authorities spokesperson mentioned: “UK Visas and Immigration is prioritising Ukraine Household Scheme functions in response to the humanitarian disaster brought on by the invasion of Ukraine, and so functions for examine, work and household visas could take longer to course of.”

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