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Brexit threatens British asparagus as EU seasonal workers stay away

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This year, Mr Chinn's team has had to work much harder to recruit Romanians and Bulgarians who are perplexed by the long Brexit process.

Ross-on-Wye, England

FOR almost 100 years, Chris Chinn's family has farmed asparagus in the rolling hills of the Wye Valley in western England.

This year, he fears uncertainty around Britain's departure from the European Union will keep his eastern European workers away and the asparagus will stay in the ground.

Asparagus grown in Britain is feted by chefs as among the world's best but the seasonal worker shortage threatens the country's asparagus industry and the viability of Mr Chinn's Cobrey Farms business.

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It is a predicament shared by many British fruit and vegetable farmers, almost totally reliant on seasonal migrant workers from EU member states Romania and Bulgaria taking short-term jobs that British workers do not want.

At Mr Chinn's farm, which turns over more than £10 million (S$17.9 million) a year, the workers pick the premium asparagus spears that can grow up to 20 cm a day by hand.

Sometimes they pick them twice a day before dispatching them to customers such as Marks and Spencer and Britain's biggest supermarket, Tesco.

Britain's asparagus season is short and early - traditionally running from April 23, known as Saint George's Day, to Midsummer's Day in mid-June. It will be the first big test of the 2019 seasonal labour crisis.

This year, Mr Chinn's team has had to work much harder to recruit Romanians and Bulgarians who are perplexed by the long Brexit process as Prime Minister Theresa May seeks parliament's approval for a divorce deal with the EU. They are also wary of the welcome they will receive from Britons, who voted in 2016 to leave the EU.

Though Cobrey Farms has signed up 1,200 workers who are due to start arriving at the end of this month, Mr Chinn fears many will not turn up. He does not think he will be able to harvest the entire crop, meaning valuable asparagus will be left in the fields.

"If we're 20 per cent short of people, then we will harvest 20 per cent less asparagus," said Mr Chinn. "UK agriculture's not a high-margin game, so 20 per cent less means we're in loss-making territory. Fifty per cent could sink us."

Mr Chinn's concern grew after 20 of the 100 or so workers due to help cultivate the crops in January failed to turn up.

Of 247 workers due to arrive between March 31 and April 6, 125 are yet to book flights, he said. They include 38 who have worked at Cobrey Farms before and stayed in the dozens of static caravans that stand at the foot of the hills on the farm.

Mr Chinn, who voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, said that uncertainty over eastern Europeans' employment rights and how long they can stay, combined with a fall in the value of the pound, meant Germany and the Netherlands were now considered more attractive destinations.

Elina Kostadinova, a 28 year-old harvest manager at Cobrey Farms who is from Varna on Bulgaria's Black Sea, said that many workers were worried about coming to Britain because of Brexit. "They don't know if they will be welcomed in the country, how long they may be able to stay, how they may be able to travel and what the future may hold," she said. "It would be wonderful if the UK government could make a decision, so we can relay this message."

British farms typically pay workers the national minimum wage of £7.83 an hour plus performance-related bonuses.

Britain's fruit and vegetable sector relies on up to 80,000 seasonal workers from the EU each year. For the last two seasons, Britain has been short by around 10,000 workers, threatening the food supply and forcing farms to pay higher wages and bonuses.

Concordia, a labour agency charity that finds EU pickers for British farms, said it now has to work much harder to recruit.

"UK agriculture is definitely entering into a crisis. No labour means no harvesting, which means no fruit and no vegetables on shelves in British supermarkets," chief executive Stephanie Maurel told Reuters.

She was speaking in Moscow after the British government sanctioned a pilot trial for 2,500 workers to enter the country from Russia, Ukraine and Moldova for up to six months over the next two years. REUTERS