For nearly 100 years, Chris Chin’s family has cultivated asparagus in the West of England. This year, he fears that uncertainty about the UK’s exit from the EU will scare Eastern European workers away, causing asparagus to remain unharvested, reports Reuters citing the Bulgarian newspaper Dnevnik.
Asparagus cultivated in the UK is considered one of the best in the world, but the lack of seasonal workers is a threat to the sector. This situation applies also to many other UK farmers in the fruit and vegetable sector who rely almost entirely on seasonal migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria for jobs that the British do not want.
At Chin’s farm, whose profit amounts to more than 10 million pounds a year, workers pick the best asparagus. Sometimes, they collect it twice a day before the product is shipped to customers like Marks & Spencer and Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket.
“There won’t be British asparagus on your supermarket shelves without seasonal migrant workers,” Chin told Reuters. “We have indeed come to a point where we must choose between importing workers or asparagus,” he added.
This year, Chin’s team had to make bigger efforts to find Bulgarians and Romanians. They are confused by the long-running Brexit process and are worried about how they will be accepted by the British who voted in 2016 for leaving the EU.
Although the Chin family company, Cobrey Farms, has 1,200 workers registered who are due to arrive at the end of the month, Chin fears that many of them will not come and we won’t be able to harvest the entire production.
Chin’s fears increased after 20 of the approximately 100 workers who should have turned up in January did not arrive. Of the 247 workers who were supposed to arrive between March 31 and April 6, 125 have not yet booked their planes, he added. Of these, 38 had previously worked at Cobrey Farms.
Chin, who voted to stay in the EU at the Brexit referendum in 2016, says that the uncertainty about the labor rights of Eastern European workers, together with the decline in the value of the pound, have turned Germany and the Netherlands into more attractive destinations for those workers.
Elina Kostadinova (28 years old), a Bulgarian citizen from Varna, who is a manager at Cobrey Farms, said many laborers are afraid to work in the UK because of Brexit. “I don’t know if they will be well received; I don’t know how long they will be able to stay, how they can travel and what they can expect in the future,” she said.
Typically, British farms pay workers a national minimum wage of £ 7.83 per hour, plus bonuses depending on the work they have done. According to Chin’s statements, the idea of British workers filling that gap is unrealistic. He does not expect too much help from supermarkets, where the sales volume has already been agreed for this season and prices are fixed, except in exceptional cases.
The UK fruit and vegetable sector relies on some 80,000 seasonal workers from the EU every year
In the last two seasons, the UK has experienced a shortage of about 10,000 workers, threatening food supplies and forcing farms to pay higher wages and premiums. For the end of summer, when workers want to get home, farms are offering free accommodation and travel money, to persuade them to stay.