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

UK fruit and vegetable growers are scrambling to recruit seasonal harvesting workers from countries including Morocco and Mongolia after Ukrainians, who made up most of last year’s recruits, were prevented from coming by the Russian invasion.

Some 67 per cent of almost 30,000 people recruited under the seasonal workers’ scheme in 2021 came from Ukraine, after Brexit ended free movement to the UK from the EU, previously the main source of farm labour. Another 8 per cent came from Russia, official data show.

That has forced recruiters to look elsewhere as the main harvesting season approaches and visa processors struggle with the added workload of the Ukrainian refugee schemes.

George Eustice, environment secretary, said on Tuesday that “clearly those [Ukrainian] people aren’t going to come this year. Most of them are actually staying to fight for their country”.

Speaking at the Food and Drink Federation’s annual conference, he added: “The four operators that run that scheme have been looking at other possibilities including countries like Morocco and Bulgaria.”

Nick Ottewell, farming director at Kent salad grower LJ Betts, said 40 Ukrainian workers who worked there in 2021 had been due to return this year, but one had been killed in the war and the remainder did not expect to reach the farm, for reasons including a lack of visa processing facilities in Kyiv.

He had managed to recruit 38 Romanians to replace them under the visa scheme, arriving in April, but these new workers would require training and therefore be less productive than experienced pickers, adding to the farm’s financial burden.

“The [recruitment] 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 said. “Our industry is in a mess.”

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

Justin Emery, director at Fruitful Jobs, one of the recruitment agencies operating the scheme, said his company was recruiting in Mongolia, Tajikistan and the Philippines.

Some Ukrainians and Russians hired before the February invasion were still able to work, he said, but many Ukrainians had either joined the country’s army or were staying to care for family. The country is preventing men of fighting age from leaving.

Russians, meanwhile, cannot pay for working visas because of sanctions that have cut off the Swift and Mastercard payment systems.

Emery said the UK visa service was occupied with handling applications by Ukrainian refugees, leading the processing of seasonal workers’ visas to grind to a halt as the main harvesting season looms. “We’ve been assured that will change over the next couple of weeks. It needs to change soon,” he said.

“We are only six weeks off our main season kicking off. We’ll be going into the soft fruit season, with strawberry and raspberry picking. Asparagus has started this week, and there will be planting of winter vegetables.”

The National Farmers’ Union this month said that “Ukrainian workers have been essential to fruit and veg businesses over the past few years . . . [carrying out] essential roles planting, picking, packing and grading fresh produce.” It has also called for the scheme to be expanded to 40,000 places this year.

The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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