FAVERSHAM (Britain) • After weeks of uninterrupted sunshine, the strawberry season is in full swing in the so-called Garden of England. But with a shortage of seasonal labourers to pick the fruits, a trend exacerbated by Brexit, there are growing fears many may be left to rot on their stems.
"We will end up with a problem," said Mr Alastair Brooks, who runs a 60ha farm near the town of Faversham in the southern fruit-growing county of Kent.
His operation in Kent produces about 1,200 tonnes of strawberries and 400 tonnes of raspberries annually from April to November. "There's definitely a tightening of the labour market," added Mr Brooks, 50, who employs 20 permanent and 180 seasonal workers.
A recent study by British Summer Fruits, the biggest industry body, found that three out of five soft fruit growers are struggling to recruit the 30,000 seasonal staff needed. Around 95 per cent of the workers currently come from Eastern Europe.
Soft fruit production in Britain has grown over the past 20 years by 131 per cent - largely as a result of an increase in home-grown strawberries. The industry is now worth more than £1.2 billion (S$2.2 billion). The staff shortage is not restricted to fruits, with the entire horticultural sector buffeted by Brexit and improvements in labour markets in Eastern Europe.
As unemployment has fallen in Bulgaria and Romania, the number of people applying to work in England's fields has dropped, with Britain's impending departure from the European Union now amplifying the trend. It has led to uncertainty over future immigration rules, while fears of encountering xenophobia and a weakened British currency - giving less money to send home - have also deterred arrivals.
The labour squeeze is occurring despite workers being mostly paid at the national living wage of £7.83 an hour and some given airline tickets, housing support and productivity bonuses. The prospect of British fruit pickers replacing them is remote, with the country close to full employment and those in search of jobs mainly in urban areas.
Number of seasonal staff needed but whom three out of five soft fruit growers are struggling to recruit.
Producers are calling on the government to open the immigration system to more seasonal workers from countries outside the EU, as Germany, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have already done.
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said it is working closely with the Home Office, which is in charge of immigration policy, "to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU". "We are determined to get the best deal for the United Kingdom in our EU negotiations, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our economic success."