On the day Putin sent in the troops, 24th February, there was an article in the FPJ headed “SAWS operators: There will be enough workers from outside UK”. It went on to say that two of the largest operators of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme were looking to reassure UK growers “that they will have enough labour to pick their crops over the coming weeks and months”. Then I read the stats – of 30,000 Seasonal Workers last year 67% were from Ukraine, 8% from Russia and 3% Belarus. It seemed to me that this was a very brave statement to make when nearly 80% of your labour supply has been taken out of the equation overnight.
Wind the clock forward to 5th May and one of our lettuce growers on the phone in despair telling me that the SAWS gang he’d been promised to arrive that day has been delayed to around 30th May. As he put it “my lettuce crop’s 10 days early and my labour about 28 days late”. He’s managed to find some labour but nowhere near enough so he will have to skip crop. Can there be anything more demoralising for a grower than leaving perfectly good crop to rot in the field purely down to lack of labour to harvest it? This happened frequently last season and it saddens to me to report that it’s already happening again this season.
One of our asparagus growers tells me he’s been short of labour all season but is dreading late May / early June when demand for labour is off the chart. The brassica boys kick in at that time on top of strong demand for all the other labour-intensive crops such as soft fruit, lettuce, asparagus etc. He skipped crop last season due to labour shortages and is already “just about to get to the point of skipping crop again”.
In fairness to the SAWS scheme operators, the shortages are not all due to the war. The delays in getting visas processed is the other main issue. One of our growers said the Home Office should be renamed the Immigration Prevention Office.
I despair at this government’s attitude towards immigration. “They come over here and take our jobs” is often an accusation levelled against immigration. Never has that narrow-minded statement been more wrong. For the first time since records began, there is now a vacancy for every unemployed worker. Compare that to the recession after the 2008 financial crisis when there were 5 workers chasing every job. Inflation is at a 30-year high. Wages rose by 4% in just the 3 months to February. Interest rates are at their highest level since 2009. All these factors could be alleviated by the government simply allowing more desperately-needed low-skilled labour into the country.
Let’s end on a brighter note. A feel-good story! If you read my “Milk of Human Kindness” article you’ll recognise the key role Sylwia Rzeznik (Silv) played in organising the loads of fruit & veg for delivery to the Polish charities to feed the Ukrainian refugees. She worked tirelessly on this project. I said in the article “She’s great – the embodiment of everything Boris fails to recognise in the benefits of immigration, we’re proud of her”. Like most low-skilled workers coming here to graft in our fields and packhouses, from the moment Silv stepped on British soil, she has done nothing but give to this country and our economy. She’s worked hard, paid her taxes and has not been a drain on any of our resources. Please spare two and half minutes of your precious time to watch Silv’s Story. She’s a star – as a country we just need a few million more like her!