Food costs skyrocket as farms crushed by visa shortfall | business news

Labor shortages on British farms have left tons of food unharvested, costing millions of pounds and pushing food inflation up to 20% at the farm gate, the farming industry told Sky News. .

Farmers say this year’s harvest has been affected by a shortfall in the total number of temporary worker visas issued by the Interior Ministry, delays in processing those visas, and a collapse in the number of Ukrainian workers arriving. to the UK after the Russian invasion.

Last year, more than 60% of seasonal visa workers were from Ukraine and 8% from Russia. That number has been greatly reduced since adult Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country.

Sky News also spoke to Russians who say their visa applications have been canceled without explanation by recruitment agencies, despite there being no explicit ban on Russians working in the UK.

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In 2021, around 30,000 temporary worker visas were made available. This year an additional 10,000 were awarded, of which 8,000 were allocated to horticulture and 2,000 to alleviate production problems in the poultry industry.

As a result of labor shortages, individual farmers have already left hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops in the ground, and there are concerns about the industry’s ability to harvest a full crop during the current berry season and next apple and pear season.

Derek Wilkinson, managing director of Sandfield Farms, part of G’s Fresh Produce Group, employs more than 150 foreign workers at his farm in Worcestershire.

He told Sky News that labor shortages, caused in part by delays in visa processing, had already cost him around £250,000 of his crop of Worcestershire-grown asparagus and spring onions.

“If we don’t have the people, we just can’t reap the harvest,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “We try to recruit locally and there just aren’t any people out there. The British just don’t want seasonal work, if you live in the UK you need a permanent job. We try to recruit but we would get very little recruitment.”

Some visas took six to seven weeks to process, “which is just ridiculous in my opinion,” Wilkinson said. “I talk to growers in the Netherlands and Germany who do the same thing and can get a visa processed in a few days, so I’m not sure why it takes so long.”

“That meant that at the beginning of May, we had 40% fewer people than we should have here. They were recruited but they just hadn’t processed the visas.”

As a result, the company lost between 40 and 45,000 kilograms of asparagus worth around £150,000, and 750,000 bunches of spring onions, worth around £100,000, Wilkinson said.

The UK’s temporary workforce has been falling since 2018 and the introduction of the post-Brexit temporary worker visa scheme.

It is one of the only routes for low-skilled and low-paid workers to enter the UK from abroad. Previously, most seasonal workers came from the European Union without restrictions.

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The British Berry Growers Association says expansion is now in doubt, with more than 36 million pounds of crops destroyed in 2021 because they failed to harvest.

In 2021, around 30,000 temporary worker visas were made available. This year an additional 10,000 were awarded, of which 8,000 were allocated to horticulture and 2,000 to alleviate production problems in the poultry industry.

The government plans to reduce the number of temporary worker visas available next year before phasing them out entirely in 2024, with a view to domestic workers and automation, including fruit-picking robots, to fill the gap.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) warns the plan is unrealistic and risks a contraction of the horticulture sector just as the government proposes an expansion as part of its recently published food strategy.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, said: “We have very low unemployment, we have 4% unemployed and millions of vacancies, so it’s not realistic for it to be provided by the domestic workforce when there are many permanent positions.” .”

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The cost of the cheapest supermarket pasta has doubled in a year as rising inflation hits the price of low-cost groceries.

“The Migration Advisory Committee identified that seasonal gardening is unique and we need to embrace that,” said Mr. Bradshaw. “We should be looking at the sector to enable it to grow and deliver fresh British food and vegetables to our consumers, it’s a wonderful success story, it’s something we can do very well with our climate, but at the moment we feel our hands are tied.” behind our backs.”

Sir Robert Goodwill, Conservative chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, told Sky News the temporary worker scheme should remain as uncertainty over labor supply could impede investment.

“We want it to be a permanent scheme. If you are planting a vineyard or building a packing house, you have to make sure you have the labor to come and do that work in the future. The scheme is very successful and there is no reason for it.” They shouldn’t make it permanent.”

Despite high demand in the UK, Russian applicants have had difficulty obtaining visas. Ilshat Nizammev, from the southern city of Ufa, told Sky News that his visa had been canceled without explanation by a recruitment agency.

“I wanted to come but my visa was canceled and I heard that 500 Russian visas were canceled like me, so what can I do?” he said.

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The Home Office has denied that the visas were delayed.

“Our company sent us a long email, apologized for this information, we support the Russians, we support the Ukrainians, but this year is difficult, we have never had this experience, we have never had so many people who cannot get a visa, we can’t do anything for you.”

The Interior Ministry denied that the visas had been delayed, insisting that it is processing applications within the “service standard” of eight weeks, but priority had been given to visas granted to Ukrainian refugees.

“We are processing simple applications for seasonal worker visas within the standard of service and it is wrong to say that there are delays in the issuance of those visas,” a spokesman said.

The easy access to seasonal labor enjoyed by the UK as a member of the European Union, particularly since the accession of 10 mainly Eastern European states in 2004, has shaped agriculture to some extent.

The availability of workers made labor-intensive crops like berries more viable, and there has been tremendous growth in that market. The British Berry Growers Association says expansion is now in doubt, with more than 36 million pounds of crops destroyed in 2021 because they failed to harvest.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford University Migration Observatory, which studies international politics and migration, says toughening up the workforce could change crops.

“In the long run, if fewer workers are available, we might expect the UK to return to a position a bit closer to where it was in the early 2000s, when we weren’t producing as many labour-intensive products,” he said. .

“In the short term, that can be quite disruptive for farmers who have created a business model that relies on the availability of a substantial number of temporary workers.”

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