Coronavirus: Furloughed staff urged to harvest fruit and veg to fill migrant labour gap

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Britain faces a shortfall in seasonal agricultural labour. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The UK government will step up its campaign to recruit furloughed workers into agriculture, with ministers warning the coronavirus has sparked serious shortages in migrant labour just as demand has soared.

The number of seasonal migrant farm workers in Britain stands at around a third of its typical level at this time of year, according to environment secretary George Eustice on Sunday.

UK farms are heavily reliant on both permanent and seasonal workers, mainly from Europe, to pick fruit and vegetables, with migrants filling around 60% of horticultural jobs. Around 70,000 seasonal staff are needed a year.

The sector faced recruitment problems before COVID-19 hit, with Brexit and sterling’s decline discouraging workers from the EU. Now many would-be migrants are either unwilling or unable to move for such jobs because of the virus and restrictions on travel, despite UK and EU efforts to facilitate seasonal workers’ movement.

READ MORE: UK faced ‘perfect storm’ picking fruit and veg even before COVID-19 hit

With almost four million UK workers absent from their workplaces on ‘furlough’ and unemployment soaring as Britain’s economy has ground to a halt, the industry hopes many will help fill the agricultural gap. Furloughed staff cannot work for their employers, but can take up temporary work elsewhere.

“We are working with industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in some cases to consider taking a second job, helping get the harvest in in June,” Eustice said in the Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Sunday.

“It’s not an issue at the moment since the harvest has barely begun, but we do anticipate that there will be a need to recruit staff for those sectors in the month of June.”

The government has already co-launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ recruitment site alongside industry, warning the sector is struggling to cope with increased demand for fresh fruit and vegetables.

READ MORE: Prezzo gives 3,000 furloughed workers cash early as they away grants

Some in the farming industry are sceptical about the recruitment drive however, warning some British applicants have not turned up to interviews or shifts.

Ali Capper, an apple farmer and chair of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)’s horticulture board, told Yahoo Finance UK before the current crisis that she tried to recruit locals every year.

One of recruitment drives took in every college within 30 miles of her farm, but yielded only 15 new recruits and just three turned up to work.

Watch the latest videos from Yahoo UK