After Brexit, and amid pandemic, UK cuts access to traditional sources of labor in Europe
“Before Brexit ended, Covid happened. The two issues merged,” said Ms Nandy, who would normally double her workforce to 25 with seasonal labor during peak periods at Windy Ridge Farm in Lincolnshire. As of now, she is messing with about half the essential staff. She ordered to harvest cabbage for the next year, but will still plant 20% less because the labor shortage knows no end. “It’s not sustainable,” she said.
As major economies retreat from lockdowns, many continue to suffer from labor shortages. Factory owners in China are not getting enough workers to meet growing demand for everything from handbags to cosmetics, while a mismatch between job seekers and those hired in the US is driving up wages and existing workers. prompting the U.S. to log more overtime.
Britain is the only one, however, to have closed off access to a significant source of workers. The government recently called in the military to help deliver the fuel after some gas stations dried up due to a shortage of tanker drivers. Pig farmers are threatening to kill 100,000 animals because the country doesn’t have enough butchers and slaughterhouse workers.
Sectors such as agriculture that relied heavily on European workers are lobbying the government to introduce more visas to bridge gaps in their supply chains. But curbing immigration was a key reason many voted to leave the European Union five years ago, and the ruling Conservative Party is resisting pressure to issue temporary visas in small numbers. Ministers say the current disruptions are early problems as Britain transitions to the new economic model. He says limiting immigration will help raise wages and force companies to invest in new technologies to better improve sluggish productivity growth.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that British trade had become dependent on cheap imported labor and that the country needed to move away from the “old broken model”.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea to leave behind the low pay, low investment, low skill approach that we had before,” he said. “This is a big turning point for the UK”
In 2004, the expansion of the European Union to include former Soviet-bloc countries brought thousands of workers from places such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to rural parts of Britain such as Lincolnshire, where 30% of the country’s vegetables are grown. Some of the richest farms in the country. Net migration to the UK reached 331,000 in the year ending March 2015, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.
Cities like Boston were replaced by an influx, catalysing complaints that 75.6% of voters here voted to leave the European Union in 2016 – the most of any district in the country.
Wendy Reid runs a bridal shop on West Street, which is lined with businesses catering to Eastern European clients. Ms Reid, who voted for Brexit, said the influx of migrants has affected public services and made the city unrecognizable.
The result of the referendum was a cause of concern for Ms. Nandi, who farms 1,200 acres from Boston. Some of its permanent employees who were EU citizens left before Brexit came into force, and more went home when the pandemic took hold last year. They were part of a larger outflow of 200,000 EU citizens in 2020, according to data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics. There are about 3.5 million left. For Ms Nandy, the problem came into respite only when demand improved with the easing of restrictions this summer, which coincided with the harvest.
According to the National Farmers Association, 30,000 visas for seasonal workers is less than half of the 60,000–70,000 required a year. The government did not say how many of them have been taken.
The shortage has left farmers to compete on a smaller pool of labour, with some offering a minimum wage of £8.91 an hour, several times the equivalent of $12.11, in addition to loyalty bonuses and other incentives. However, many supply vegetables to retailers on fixed-price contracts and cannot increase wages without eroding margins that are already squeezed by the high cost of inputs such as packaging and fuel.
A local labor agency provided Ms. Nandi with five European workers who are paying the equivalent of five times the minimum wage to prepare a crop of 60,000 pumpkins for the market. Some workers have refused certain tasks or failed to show up when the weather is bad, but Ms Nandi said she tolerates it because it would be so hard to replace them.
“The balance of power has completely shifted toward the worker,” said Chris Taylor, who runs a labor agency in Boston. Of the 680 people currently in his books, all except 20 are from the European Union.
Labor shortage in other sectors is also adding to the challenges for agriculture. Driver shortage has made it difficult for tractors to secure diesel and deliver produce to buyers.
According to the latest data available from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, there were 268,000 truck drivers on UK roads at the end of June. 12% less than at the end of 2019. The number of EU drivers has dropped drastically. 35%, falling from 15,000 to 28,000.
Before Brexit, Jennifer Finn, managing director of building contractor AC White & Co Ltd, in Barhead, Scotland, hired workers skilled in plastering and rendering from Hungary and other parts of Europe to fill gaps in their workforce.
Many of his European staff returned home when COVID-19 restrictions were eased, and the cost and paperwork involved in navigating the new immigration rules made it difficult to replace them. Ms. Finn currently employs about 80 people, about half the number she would like to introduce to more business. He said the company has collaborated with two local colleges to train the youth in the required skills, but it will take time.
James Cole, who runs a florist in Lincolnshire, said investing in automation is also a long-term prospect. “We have some automated bunching machines, we’re looking at a robotic planter for our tulip bulbs, but the technology isn’t there – it’s at least a year away.”
The high cost of living has also affected the UK’s appeal for many EU workers, said Julian Stein, who moved from Romania as a seasonal worker two years ago before founding 300 Spartans, a recruitment agency in Boston. Came to UK “People no longer choose England,” he said.
—Jason Douglas and Max Colchester contributed to this article.
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