- in Environment
Eastern European farm workers are being flown to the UK on charter flights to pick fruit and vegetable crops.
Air Charter Service has told the BBC that the first flight will land on Thursday in Stansted carrying 150 Romanian farm workers.
The firm told the BBC that the plane is the first of up to six set to operate between mid-April and the end of June.
Government department Defra said it was encouraging people across the UK “to help bring the harvest in”.
British farmers recently warned that crops could be left to rot in the field because of a shortage of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus lockdown have meant most workers have stayed at home.
Several UK growers have launched a recruitment drive, calling for local workers to join the harvest to prevent millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables going to waste. However, concerns remain that they won’t be able to fulfil the demand on farms.
One of the UK’s biggest fresh food producers, G’s Fresh, based in Cambridgeshire, confirmed it chartered two out of the six flights carrying Eastern European farm workers from Romania.
Derek Wilkinson, managing director of G’s Fresh’s Sandfield Farms division, told the BBC that the 150 workers arriving at Stansted from eastern Romania on Thursday will be taken by bus to farms in East Anglia to pick lettuce.
The firm said the group will be screened on arrival in the UK, will be socially distanced, and anyone found to have a temperature will be quarantined.
Mr Wilkinson said his business needed 3,000 seasonal workers, with the greatest need in May at the start of the spring onion harvest, followed by the pea and bean crop in June.
He added that the company had had a good response to a recruitment campaign aimed at local workers. So far, 500 British people have registered their interest.
The Air Charter Service, a private firm, has already arranged flights for seasonal workers in other countries. It flew 1,000 farm workers to Germany from Bulgaria and Romania in recent weeks.
The workers will board in Iasi, eastern Romania, after having their temperatures taken and filling out a health questionnaire. The BBC understands that they will be taken from the airport by minibuses to farms in the South East and the Midlands.
Environment Seasonal worker shortage
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said up to 70,000 fruit and vegetable pickers were needed. It is calling for a modern-day “land army” of UK workers.
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw told the BBC: “Growers that rely on seasonal workers to grow, pick and pack our fresh fruit, veg and flowers are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus restrictions may have on their ability to recruit this critical workforce this season.”
“In the meantime, I would encourage anyone who is interested in helping pick for Britain this summer to contact one of the approved agricultural recruiters.”
A national campaign is appealing to students and those who have lost their jobs in bars, cafes and shops to help with the harvest.
Several schemes have been set up to recruit new workers. They include one by the charity Concordia, which typically helps young people arrange experiences abroad, and another by the industry bodies British Summer Fruit and British Apples and Pears.
Data released to the BBC last week by job search engines suggested that those recruitment efforts might be paying off.
Totaljobs said it had seen 50,000 searches for farming jobs in one week alone. It added that searches for terms such as “fruit picker” or “farm worker” had surged by 338% and 107% respectively.
Indeed.co.uk said that there had been a huge spike in interest for fruit picker jobs in particular. Between 18 March and 1 April, there was an increase of more than 6,000% in searches for these roles on its website.
Meanwhile, Monster said the number of UK users searching for “farm” or “farm worker” jobs had nearly tripled.
The charity Concordia said the response had been “phenomenal”, but that a labour shortage was still expected.
Stephanie Maurel, its chief executive, told the BBC’s Today programme that 36,000 people had registered interest and more than 6,000 had conducted a video interview.
But in the last 10 days, while almost 900 people had been offered jobs, just 112 have agreed contracts to accept employment.
“We’ve got brilliant people who are ready to work, but the reality of a job when it comes to it hasn’t really matched their circumstances, so we’re just working through that at the moment,” Ms Maurel said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was “working hard with industry to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need” for harvesting produce.
“We are encouraging as many people as possible to take part in seasonal working opportunities across the country to help bring the harvest in, and recruitment efforts by industry are well under way,” a Defra spokesperson said.
The government is not involved in chartering flights of European workers to the UK.