Farmers have told Home Office ministers that strawberries and raspberries will be left to rot this summer because of a shortage of migrant workers to pick them.
The industry has urged the Government to relax quotas to allow thousands more migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and non-EU Eastern European states such as Ukraine, Albania and Moldova, to enter Britain to pick fruit and vegetables.
Lord Rooker, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister, is backing the farmers while Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister, insists that the current migration laws and quotas are right for Britain.
The emerging labour shortage also threatens to undermine a key part of the Government’s immigration policy, which is based on the belief that Britain’s need for low-skilled workers can be met by people from within the EU.
The warning that summer fruits and salad vegetables will remain unpicked comes despite more than 630,000 Eastern European migrants registering for work in Britain since May 2004. A further 16,250 migrants from Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European states enter for a maximum of six months under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme.
But Philip Hudson, chief horticultural adviser with the National Farmers’ Union, said that there had been a fall in the number of people from Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (the A8 states) willing to work in the horticultural and agricultural sectors.
Mr Hudson blamed the difficulties on the improving economies of their countries and the decision by other EU states to open their labour markets to citizens of the A8.
A survey of 13 soft fruit and vegetable growers suggested that they had a 55 per cent shortfall of workers and had been able to recruit only 2,300 people to pick crops.
James Davies, the general manager of HOPS Labour solutions, which provides 10,000 workers to farms throughout Britain, said that people from the eight states were less interested in seasonal agricultural work and wanted to find full-time jobs. “They do not want jobs for four months,” he said.
“A lot of migrants coming here view agriculture as peasant work.”
Mr Davies said the problem was a consequence of the Government’s failure to manage migration. “They just threw open the doors to one group—those from the eight states—and then said, ‘Oh, no’ let’s close it for the next group, the Bulgarians and Romanians.”
Latest Home Office figures show that the number arriving from the A8 states to work in agriculture has fallen. In 2005, 22,700 registered to work in the agricultural sector but last year the figure fell to 19,895. The total number registering in the agricultural sector in the first three months of 2006 was 3,755, compared with 3,400 in the same period this year.
Mr Byrne said: “We are phasing out low-skilled migration from outside Europe because we think businesses should hire those close to home first.
“Some people have told us our immigration reforms are too draconian, but I think they’re right for Britain.”
—Britain did not restrict migrants from the eight Eastern European states (A8) coming to work here when they joined the EU in 2004
—The Home Office says the number of migrants from the A8 states registering as fruit pickers fell from 2,305 in 2005 to 1,540 in 2006
—Only 19,750 low-skilled workers from Romania and Bulgaria are allowed to enter Britain each year on special schemes for the food-processing and agricultural industries.