The farming industry is warning thousands of tonnes of fruit and veg will rot in UK fields if vacancies for seasonal workers are not filled.
Leaders say a drive to get unemployed and furloughed staff onto the fields has had an inadequate response, threatening shortages of locally sourced food.
However, Brits who have applied for the jobs claim they are being ignored or rejected in favour of eastern European workers.
Around 50,000 Britons have applied for the estimated 90,000 positions available – but only 6,000 people have been offered an interview.
Cab driver Nick Turvey, who lost his income when the country went into lockdown, told Good Morning Britain (GMB) he had applied for farm work every day of the month but was yet to receive an offer.
He said despite getting daily job alerts through recruitment websites, farmers are telling him there are no vacancies when he rings direct.
‘I am very disheartened, I am not alone. I think there’s thousands of able bodied people out there who are willing to work’ he said.
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Social media is awash with criticism from British applicants claiming it is impossible to get farm work despite leaders in the industry putting out a national call to arms to ‘feed the nation’.
Fruit pickers have been flown in from overseas so that farms stay staffed with labourers during the coronavirus pandemic. A flight of about 180 critically important Romanian workers landed at Stansted Airport last week, with five more set to arrive in the coming months.
Speaking to GMB, Ali Capper, chairman of the National Farmers Union (NFU) Horticulture and Potatoes board said the season’s peak was towards the end of May, when jobs would be most in demand.
‘The farming industry is putting the shout out now because what we must have are people in place for our peak months’ she said, describing this as the period between June and October.
The GMB report also heard from Grocer editor Adam Leyland, who warned of the impact labour shortages would have on supermarket shelves. He said prices may go up if suppliers have to source handpicked fruit from outside the UK – such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and some veg.
This could also lead to huge amounts of waste – a problem that has plagued farms in recent years without the added toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: ‘We can source food. We have got an incredibly resilient supply chain. But British fruit and veg last Autumn wasn’t picked, it was rotting in the fields. And now with only 25% of the seasonal labour force getting through with the lack of flights, we will see shortages of British grown fruit and veg.’
In terms of recruitment, he agreed that not enough British applicants were reaching the interview stage. But he pointed out that of the 1,000 Brits who have been offered a job on a farm, only 112 had accepted the offer.
The already backbreaking work is made less appealing by the fact farms are on remote locations and jobs are full-time but seasonal.
‘It’s not just the case of people being willing and able. There are also logistical issues’, Mr Leyland said.
Ms Capper urged the UK workforce not to give up on applying, insisting their help will be needed in the coming months.
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