Farmers say they were experiencing increased difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers since the EU referendum. A former environment secretary suggested a return to land work for British youths, an idea shared by many. The truth is, British people are highly unlikely to fill any positions left by migrant workers. It isn't as simple as there being sufficient labour available in the UK to perform the work. The situation is far more complex.
Rural communities have been transformed due to the of locals, and people from cities moving to the country or buying second homes, pricing potential farm workers out of the local housing market. As a result, physically able unemployed people are now less likely to live anywhere near the farms requiring workers. Transport systems in rural areas are limited, and basic, temporary housing is unlikely to attract people away from comfortable, permanent housing situated close to friends and family.
The current benefits system also from engaging in any kind of seasonal work due to the inflexibility of signing on and off. Add this to the inconsistency of work availability itself, and there is little wonder why no compulsion exists to pick fruit.
The conditions of seasonal work – low pay, physically demanding, long and unsociable hours – do not help. They are far from the expectations of the typical British worker, who is now culturally tuned to a 40-hour Monday to Friday schedule. There is also a greater desire for career progression, which is unlikely to occur in the world of fruit picking. But even if conditions and incentives of picking fruit and veg were improved, British workers would still be unlikely to perform it because of how this kind of work is perceived. Among other things, the task has become negatively associated with migrant workers and slave labour. Farmers have repeatedly tried to employ locals, with a drastically low rate of return, telling stories of and even fewer returning after just several days of work.
Farmers have little power over price setting against the whim of supermarket control. This cost squeeze leaves many farmers with their hands tied in terms of increasing worker pay – the effect of which would be higher prices for the consumer. Mechanisation might one day be the answer, but due that is not yet feasible.