Ali Capper, chairman of the NFU horticulture board, said labour providers are already struggling to find enough workers to come to the UK and there is a very real concern there will not be enough hands for next year’s harvest.
Ms Capper told the National Farmers’ Union council Britain urgently needs a permit scheme for seasonal agricultural workers from all over the world to ensure continued food production.
She said: “Because of the devaluation of the pound, working here is worth less. People in Romania are now looking for €9/hour for seasonal work to make up for the travel and uprooting their lives. They do not have to come here to pick apples for what is perceived as less money, they can do that in other EU countries.
“The message since the vote to leave the EU is they are not welcome to come here.”
Concerned about the Government’s tough stance on immigration, Ms Capper added: “The agricultural industry has a decades-long history of delivering 98 per cent worker return rates. Seasonal labour is not tied up in the immigration argument and never should be, because people come here to work and go home again.”
The horticulture sector, alongside others, is already grappling with extra business costs created by the National Living Wage.
Recent figures show up to 7,803 food and drink manufacturers are in financial distress following its introduction – an increase of 22 per cent.
These increased wage bills, coupled with an inability to find enough workers, are forcing many growers to consider shifting production overseas.
Ms Capper said numerous people had told her they were thinking about moving their businesses to southern or eastern Europe. Portugal is a particularly attractive destination because of its high number of Thai pickers, who have a reputation for working quickly and carefully. Others were looking at the possibility of moving even further afield, to China or South Africa.
The NFU is meeting Home Office officials on November 1 to discuss the possibility of introducing a new scheme.