A work visa program is expected to be expanded to deal with an emerging jobs crisis in Kent’s agricultural industry, according to local groups.
The South East National Farmers Union (NFU SE) and Kent fruit growers have jointly called on the UK government to launch a major industry recruitment drive to ease employment pressures facing the sector.
The NFU SE says some farmers in the south-east of England are facing “a labor shortage of 15-30%” in harvesting vegetables and fruits, such as apples and pears.
This results from the departure of workers from the industry due to the pandemic and post-Brexit immigration rules, making it more difficult to hire in Europe.
An NFU spokesperson said: “The urgent need for the UK government to introduce a Covid recovery visa program, to alleviate labor shortages on fresh produce farms, was highlighted during meetings with MPs in recent weeks. “
Almost half of the country’s berries are grown in the south-east, much of it in Kent, with free-draining soils, rolling hills and a mild climate.
By virtue of this, around 13,500 people are employed in Kent’s agricultural industry, with farmers and producers taking care of 62% of the county’s total land area.
“We need help not only until Christmas, but for many years to come …”
The Garden of England is home to over 300,000 sheep, while Kent’s large cattle herd produces 7.9 million liters of milk each year.
The county’s agricultural sector has helped generate Â£ 281million per year from all the livestock and crops produced in the 13 districts, including Medway.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government last week announced a series of measures to alleviate shortages following lobbying by farm organizations.
This includes the granting of 5,500 temporary visas for poultry workers in the UK up to three months before Christmas Day, December 25.
However, additional support has been requested from local farm businesses which still face staff shortages, which could impact the food supply.
Medway’s fruit growers AC Goatham and Son, who grow a third of all apples and pears in the UK, said help was needed to ensure the industry’s survival.
A spokesperson for AC Goatham and Son said: ‘We fully support the NFU’s calls not only for a Covid recovery program, but a fully planned and extensive program to secure the future of UK horticulture .
“We need help not just until Christmas, but for many years to come.”
They say pay “isn’t the problem” as the average hourly wage for its staff is higher than the national living wage of Â£ 8.91 for people aged 23 and over.
Calling for more recruitment in the county, a spokesperson for AC Goatham and Son said: âThere is a lack of local people willing to work in horticulture, this has to change from school age, but it will take years to overcome.
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