Why you should enjoy our British strawberries while you still can – Stephen Jardine
The good news is, the first British strawberries of the season are now available. The bad news is, enjoy them while you can.
Thanks to special growing conditions, the earliest ever new season soft fruits were picked at a nursery in South Wales this week and went on sale the following day in selected Aldi stores.
Unfortunately that coincided with the Government’s announcement that low-skilled immigration to the UK is to end and the provision for farm labour from overseas will be severely limited.
Growing soft fruit isn’t a problem, even in February, but who you get to pick it is going to be a major headache in the future.
Two years ago a major Scottish strawberry and raspberry producer told me he was already struggling to get enough seasonal workers as Brexit loomed. With machinery unable to do the delicate work, his worry then was that in time fruit might end up being left to rot in the fields.
The Government has promised 10,000 permits for seasonal farm workers but that is just a drop in the ocean for a sector that grew 185 per cent between 1998 and 2018. Here in Scotland Angus Growers alone need 4,000 people to pick fruit in an average year.
Home Secretary Pritti Patel says companies will no longer be able to rely on cheap labour from overseas and will now need to train more British workers to fill vacancies when the new immigration system kicks in next year. She believes there are eight million economically inactive people in the UK who can take the jobs left open by the new point-based immigration system.
Undoubtedly some sectors have built their growth on low wage, low skill workers from the EU without properly addressing the skills gap here. But we are where we are. A sudden change to immigration rules in December is going to cause severe dislocation in sectors such as farming, food processing and hospitality.
Training more British workers sounds fine on paper but if you drill down into the eight million economically inactive figure, the vast majority are students, pensioners, carers or the long-term sick. And of the rest, you can encourage them to work but how do you actually physically force them ?.
Of the 4,000 who picked soft fruit for Angus Growers last year only about a dozen were British. Similarly, when Pret a Manger advertised for staff two years ago, only one applicant in 50 was British.
A mentoring and training process to encourage jobless people here to fill the gaps being created by the lack of EU nationals will take time to organise and implement and that is something we simply don’t have.
According to a strategy for growth, Scotland’s food and drink sector has 40,000 jobs to fill in the next ten years. How realistic is that when the latest figures show, there are now only 96,000 people unemployed in Scotland?
There is a strong argument for Scotland being a special case when it comes to immigration given the importance to the economy of food, drink, farming and hospitality.
In the meantime, enjoy this year’s strawberries and raspberries while there is still someone to pick them.