Strawberries, the classic British summer treat, are being plucked from a sunny field in Kent. Every worker snapping fruit from waist-high growing platforms stretching under airy polytunnels is Romanian or Bulgarian.
The staple of Wimbledon fortnight is under threat as the European workers who make up more than 90% of the UK’s 30,000 seasonal berry pickers are now reluctant to come to Britain. They have better job prospects at home and have faced an uncertain and potentially hostile reception in the UK since the Brexit vote.
The British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade body this week warned that its members are 10% to 15% short of labour and expect to have a shortfall of more than 30% by the autumn as the government drags its feet on a seasonal agricultural workers visa scheme for non-EU nationals.
The government’s latest ruse is to try and encourage unemployed Brits they are missing out on picking jobs, which can pay up to £675 a week. It is backing a video and leaflet produced by BSF which will go out to jobcentres in the next few weeks.
The Department for Work and Pensions said: “As universal credit is a tailored and responsive benefit, people can accept short-term contracts and seasonal work without worrying about their benefits, making it much more flexible than the old system.”
But farmers say British workers are not the answer – there are too few available at the right time of year.
“We don’t believe it’s a solution but there is an element of every little helps,” said BSF’s chairman, Nick Marston.
Alastair Brooks, the owner of Langdon Manor farm near Faversham in Kent, puts it more bluntly. “I’m terrified,” he said. “Up until now I have continued to invest in the hope that somebody sensible will make the right call. It concerns me enormously now when the rest of the EU is saying there is not enough labour to fill the jobs, but we’re not acting.”
While he has a full team, he said that many more foreign workers than usual have drifted home early. Usually, he needs to replace 2-3% during the season; this year it’s more than 12%.
Grown in bags of coir compost on waist-high platforms and fed by high-tech computerised irrigation systems, which can be controlled from a mobile app, his strawberry growing is a world away from scrabbling about in muddy fields.
Such techniques have helped Langdon Manor double production over three years using the same workforce. It has contributed to the increasingly successful British soft fruit industry, which now produces 91,200 tonnes of berries a year, a five-fold increase since 2000.
Brooks said people remained a vital part of the process, being the best and only way to pick fruit without damaging it and there were not enough about.
“We are desperately short of people in Kent. I don’t think the government will act until there is blood on the carpet. We will have to see fruit rotting in the fields or business failures … and that is a tragedy as it could upset a very vibrant go-ahead sector.”
He is particularly worried about August, when it’s usual for workers to begin to want to go home ahead of the new school term and the winter. “Recruitment agencies are saying ‘don’t expect us to be able to fill those vacancies’,” he said.
One of Brooks’ Romanian workers, who declined to be named, said 90% of the people she first worked with have now gone home or are not returning to the UK for seasonal work. “I have friends that have just given up. I earn good money but everything here is expensive now,” she said.
She said the atmosphere had changed since the Brexit vote. “On the Romanian news they see what the British newspapers say – that we are Gypsies, thieves and don’t come here to work so people say ‘why come here if they are going to say bad things about us’.”
Brooks said the recruitment agency he works with also tries to get in Brits, an achievement so rare they ring a bell every time it happens.
The difficulty in recruiting locals is not about pay, he said. Pickers earn the national minimum wage for over 25-year-olds of £7.83 an hour, even if they are under that age, as well as productivity bonuses which take the average wage to between £9 and £10 an hour or up to £14 an hour for fast pickers.
They get accommodation, including utilities and transport to work, for a £40-a-week charge. Brooks said wages were up 4% to 5% year on year, partly as a result of labour shortages.
But he admitted: “The last time we had a British workforce I was in my 20s, we’re going back to the 1980s.”
Back then, those workers travelled around doing different jobs through the year. Now some of those jobs are mechanised or less available because crops have been phased out while there are other less physical jobs with a year-round wage available for those who want part-time work – such as working in shops.
In any case, unemployment levels are so low in Kent that the jobcentres have way more jobs than prospective candidates.
School and university students are also largely unsuitable as shorter holidays than in the past mean they do not finish their studies until after the harvest has started and it can take six weeks to train up a picker to hit their peak.
The agricultural system has also become much more planned and regulated so that Brooks needs to sign up his workforce months in advance in order to present a planting, growing and harvesting plan to supermarkets who want guaranteed product on shelves.
One of Brooks workers said: “They say we are taking people’s jobs. They should get up at 4am and work to the evening doing this and let’s see how they do.”