Harvest time heartache – sourcing seasonal workers hit by Covid

Harvest time heartache – sourcing seasonal workers hit by Covid
Covid, Brexit, HGV shortages and difficulties getting seasonal workers all causing worries for the soft fruit, vegetable sector this harvest season

Fresh fruit and vegetables have a tight turnaround – and both Covid and Brexit are hitting the supply of seasonal workers that come to help secure the ‘just n time’ harvests this year.

And it’s not just the UK and Ireland facing the crisis – the rest of the world is feeling the pinch., with New Zealand estimating wine prices could rise by 30% due to poor harvests. Shortages in sourcing seasonal grape pickers could also drive up prices for wine – potentially an indicator that climate change is impacting harvests across the globe.

Emergency meeting

Defra told an emergency meeting of the Food Resilience Industry Forum this week that it recognised the “very difficult” situation facing the industry. One solution would be a seasonal visa scheme – suggested by Defra.

The dual heartache and headache of a shortage of delivery drivers, abattoir staff and fruit pickers caused by Covid and Brexit are fuelling wage rises with 5% hike in prices forecast – with the likelihood that prices will be forced up by around 5%.

Industry insiders say that pay for lorry drivers and other supply chain workers, including abbatoir workers, vegetable and fruit pickers and packers have all risen because of difficulties in finding sufficient staff.

“There is a war for workers,” said Ian Wright, chief executive of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, which represents hundreds of firms across the food supply chain. “The only way to get more HGV and logistics drivers is to put up pay.”

Meat processing

Tony Goodger, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (Aims), said problems in the meat processing industry meant firms were paying at least 10% more for staff than before the pandemic. “Those costs have got be passed on,” he said.

Brexit bureaucracy has also hit the sector, with particular shortages of vets for processing sites because of competing demand from exporters who now require a qualified vet to approve health certificates. Drivers with the correct accreditation to transport animals and abattoir workers with butchery skills are also hard to find.

The meat processing industry is estimated to be missing about a fifth of the necessary workers with some plants working with only half their normal staff at this time of year.

Soft fruits industry

Those problems add to issues in the soft fruit industry, which needs at least 70,000 seasonal workers every summer, and has said it is about 5,000 pickers short this year. Food transport is also being affected by the shortage of tens of thousands of HGV drivers.

The driver shortage has also been linked to Brexit. Tax changes have also affected pay while food industry employers say the furlough scheme has given workers a chance to retrain into jobs with more social hours.

Pigs in blankets

Goodger told The Guardian that meat processors were focusing workers on products needed immediately and that meant the processing of items such as pigs in blankets and stuffing, which were usually prepared over the summer and then frozen, were unlikely to be a priority.

“Those Christmas lines are unlikely to be being made so we will be likely not to have them when it comes to December,” he said. Goodger added that unless the government extended the seasonal workers scheme to butchers, EU workers who usually come to the UK from mid October to process turkeys for about two months, would not be able to do so.

Seasonal workers

Difficulties caused by Brexit, which has prevented seasonal and even long-term workers coming over from the EU, have combined with the effects of the pandemic to put a squeeze on the available workforce. Retail and food worker shortages have been exacerbated by people having to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone infected with the Covid virus or being pinged by the NHS test and trace app.

Changes to government restrictions, with lockdowns being imposed and then released at quite short notice, have also increased demand for products to be shifted quickly to meet changing demand.