The NFU is set to take a much more hardline stance on seasonal labour after being left disappointed by Ministers’ refusal to take action on the issue.
Growers have been unable to source an adequate number of workers for some time, with shortfalls of between 13 and 26 per cent every month this year.
At the union’s council meeting on Tuesday, horticulture board chair Ali Capper slammed Defra Secretary Michael Gove for telling her to ‘write to her MP’ when she raised the issue with him at a Conservative Party Conference event.
“After everything our members have done, to say I was disappointed is to put it mildly”, she said.
“I did refrain from taking back the microphone – I am not sure why now in hindsight – but I thought I would get a reputation for being rather difficult with our Ministers if I continued to hold them to account on this.
“Unfortunately I think the time has arrived for the NFU to take a different tone with Government on the issue of seasonal labour. We cannot afford to wait and see any longer.”
Ms Capper went on to complain about Ministers’ tendency to point to the work of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) when questioned about farming’s seasonal labour needs.
The MAC is due to report to the Government, but is only looking at the labour market post-2021, after the Brexit transition period.
The situation for growers has become increasingly desperate as they have been forced to pay higher rates to attract and keep staff.
Many are also considering offering free accommodation or paying bonuses for workers to complete the season while holding off on investment plans.
The NFU has called for a new seasonal workers scheme for non-EU citizens, pointing out Germany employs Ukrainians and Croatians, Portugal hires Thais and the Spanish bring in Moroccans to pick and pack fruit and vegetables.
A Defra spokesman said Mr Gove regularly meets representatives from the food and farming industry, including the NFU, to speak about the issues affecting them.
Farming Minister George Eustice has also recently attended an industry meeting about seasonal labour which discussed the need to attract workers for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
“The Government has commissioned advice from the MAC to better understand reliance on EU migrant workers and we will work closely with our farming industry to consider its specific needs”, the spokesman added.