Britain turns to Eastern Europe, and charter flights, to save its crops

Seasonal workers from Romania prepare for their departure charter flight at the International Airport in Cluj Napoca, 500 Km north-west from Bucharest, Romania, 9 April 2020. [Manases Sandor/EPA/EFE]

To save fields of asparagus and strawberries threatened with rotting, Britain is mobilising a workforce of students, the unemployed — and workers from Europe.

Little more than two months after leaving the European Union, accompanied by the promise of tougher immigration from Boris Johnson’s government, a charter plane carrying 180 Romanian agricultural workers landed at Stansted airport on Thursday (16 April).

According to media reports, the flight was the first of six specially chartered flights that will help fill a manpower gap in Britain’s farms.

Traditionally, many of those workers picking crops have come from eastern Europe. In the past Poland, but now more likely Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Around 70,000 seasonal workers are needed to pick crops every year, some 90% of who come from abroad, according to the British Growers’ Association.

But a question mark has hung over who will pick the crops in post-Brexit Britain.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said in February that employers in the UK could replace EU workers, with eight million out-of-work Britons.

But, during the coronavirus pandemic at least, it seems that the UK will have to rely on workers from elsewhere.

Romanian workers arrive

The arrival of the first batch of workers caused some unease for Romania’s Ambassador to London, Dan Mihalache.

“The Romanian state and the Embassy had no involvement… I think such movements are not opportune in this period. But we can’t control private initiatives,” he said.

“In my opinion, we shouldn’t transport an important number of people from or towards Romania.”

The flight was organised by G’s Fresh, a large food producer in Cambridge, eastern England.

The company told AFP that it wanted to have a “percentage of experienced workers” to “train” its new workforce.

Recruitment of the Romanian workers comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has led to isolation for the UK and boosted the demand for food for households.

A national appeal has been launched, called “Feed the Nation” in order to find candidates to help work in Britain’s fields.

Recognised by the government as “key workers”, seasonal workers have the right to travel to and from their place of work.

If they have children, they can place them in local schools.

According to the National Farmers Union (NFU), there have been positive “signs” of public interest in filling these temporary jobs.

“To date, we have received over 33,500 expressions of interest in the programme, from people across the UK and beyond. Of these, 16 percent have applied for a job — currently just over 5,500,” according to Concordia, one of three recruiting agencies that launched the Feed the Nation programme.

The agency told AFP that “90 percent of the candidates are British citizens, half of whom have lost their income due to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Instead of going abroad for an experience in the spring, some young candidates will instead choose to roll up their sleeves to pick salads, strawberries and raspberries at home

It is also a first for Concordia, based in Brighton on the south coast of England, and which usually specialises in international trade.

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