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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fruit and Veg crisis beckons?

Just how dependent we are on the outside world as a country has been brought into focus again this week, with everybody in lockdown, panic-buying in the supermarkets and thousands of people confined to their home for their own safety, and potential food shortages because we cannot get enough labourers to go out and pick it.

The Guardian website reports on warnings to the UK Government that charter flights to bring in agricultural workers from eastern Europe are needed as a matter of urgency, otherwise fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked in Britain’s fields.

They say that some large farms have already been chartering planes to bring in labour from eastern Europe. But farming organisations and recruitment agencies say that, in the face of massive disruption to the agricultural sector caused by the spread of the coronavirus, the government needs to step in and help organise more flights:

Some 90,000 positions need to be filled, many in just a few weeks’ time. One leading supplier, the charity Concordia, was looking to bring in around 10,000 labourers – half from the EU and the rest from Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Barbados. But all of the non-EU countries are closed. On Wednesday, in a big setback, Ukraine extended its lockdown from 2 April until 23 April.

Stephanie Maurel, Concordia’s chief executive, said: “Our recruitment outside the EU is stalled which leaves us with Lithuania, which has closed borders, Romania with no airplanes, and Bulgaria which is our little beacon.”

Although Bulgaria is on countrywide lockdown, farm workers are classed as key workers and can move around the country. But most airlines that operate in Bulgaria – including EasyJet – are grounded. A Wizz Air flight bringing in 450 people landed a week ago on Saturday.

“We’re talking about chartering planes to bring workers in,” Maurel said. “It costs around £10,000 for an hour’s flight carrying 229 people – that’s €45,000 Sofia to London, or around €250 per person.”

Maurel, who said the plan was being actively discussed by both the National Farmers’ Union and the Association of Labour Providers, called on the government to help provide urgent clarity.

“If I put up reserves and guarantees [to secure a charter flight], I need to know it can take off.”

The paper adds that some farms were struggling even before the crisis hit. This was because a tightening of the labour market, a combination of Brexit and the booming domestic economies of eastern Europe proving more attractive to seasonal workers, had seen a decline in the number of fruit and vegetable pickers coming to the UK.

Last year, 98% of fruit pickers – now classed as “key workers” – came from outside the UK, the vast majority from Bulgaria and Romania. Now however, British growers have been contacting companies in the hospitality sector to recruit laid-off staff.
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