Growers expecting seasonal workers to arrive on their farms last week have been left in the lurch after a backlog of visa applications meant the paperwork was not issued in time.
Pressure is now mounting on the Home Office, with businesses warning crops will be left to rot in the fields if workers do not arrive soon.
Addressing NFU Council at Stoneleigh on Tuesday (April 30), the union’s horticulture and potatoes board chairwoman Ali Capper said: “Farmers thought they were going to turn up last week and they did not because they did not have their visas.
“We are deeply concerned for the rest of the season and future seasons if we cannot get 2,500 visas sorted on time.”
It came as a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee heard the delays to visa processing have affected workers coming to the UK from Ukraine and Moldova.
While the Home Office has committed to a three-week turnaround, some visas were taking more than 30 days to process.
The operators stated the hold-up was partially due to workers finding it difficult to book appointments at the UK visa offices, with the visa office in Moldova only open two days a week.
Committee chairman Pete Wishart has written to the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ask what steps were being taken to speed up visa applications and whether any additional resources were being allocated to resolve the issue.
He used the example of his own constituency, where 40 workers were needed this week to pick strawberries, but the manpower would not be on the ground in time.
Mr Wishart said: “The Government’s pilot scheme was intended to alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods, but if these visa delays continue there is a risk that Scottish farmers will be left high and dry without any support during harvesting season.
“The Government needs to do everything it can to support the pilot scheme and ensure that Scottish farmers do not have to face rotting produce because of bureaucratic delays.”
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, one of the organisations responsible for rolling out the pilot seasonal workers scheme, told the Committee the sector’s labour shortages will likely get worse this year.
Mr Wishart said up-front costs of the visa and administration could act as a deterrent to some workers.
Mrs Capper said continued delays were extremely frustrating for the industry.
A Home office spokesperson said: “It is incorrect to claim that there have been any delays to processing these visas.
“Since the launch of the Seasonal Worker Scheme, UK Visas and Immigration has decided all such applications within our customer service standards.”
The Government’s pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), announced by Defra and the Home Office last year, allows fruit and vegetable growers to hire non-EU workers for up to six months before they must return home.
But the scheme has already come in for heavy criticism from industry.
2,500 workers will be able to come to the UK in each year of the 24-month scheme, though the NFU estimates 80,000 people are needed annually to harvest British crops.
SAWS allocations are said to be very low. Those needing 500-600 pickers have only been allocated 15-25 each through SAWS.
Growers have been out to Romania and Bulgaria to recruit directly, with most thinking they will have enough for the season, providing they all turn up.
Ali Capper said she was confident the Home Office was listening to industry demands and said unions would continue to push for the pilot to be extended to 10,000 workers for 2019 and 30,000 permits for 2020.
Former Farming Minister George Eustice recently submitted an Early Day Motion to convert the pilot into a fully operational SAWS scheme for 2020 with a minimum quota of 30,000 places for non-EU citizens.