Agencies recruiting seasonal workers to pick the fruit and vegetables that will help feed the nation have issued an urgent call for British people to sign up to work.
Normally, 99% of the 80,000 workers come from abroad, mostly from eastern Europe. But travel restrictions and anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic have led many workers to cancel.
The Hops agency said it has already had 3,000 applications since Wednesday and its website is struggling to cope with the interest. The soft-fruit picking season is due to get fully under way in April, with vegetable picking to follow after that.
Hops operations director Sarah Boparan said: We urgently need a UK labour force who can help harvest crops to feed the nation. At a time when international travel is restricted and people are panic buying due to the coronavirus, it is crucial that growers can provide enough British produce to our supermarkets and local shops.
We are aware that there are many people facing sustained periods away from their usual employment or studies and Hops can offer paid positions.
Workers are paid at least the minimum wage and Hops said all the farms they work with are following the correct procedures around safe working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.
A spokesman for the National Farmers Union said: Growers that rely on seasonal workers to pick, pack and grade our fruit and veg are extremely concerned. The industry is already working hard to promote available roles on farms locally, recognising that this could help those who unfortunately find themselves out of work. We are urging the government to address this situation as soon as possible and to implement any solution as a matter of urgency.
Recruitment of seasonal workers has been affected by Brexit, with farmers forced to leave tonnes of crops to rot last year as it struggled to find staff.
The Landworkers’ Alliance, a union representing more than 1,000 small- and medium-scale farmers and landworkers across the UK, said measures must be put in place to ensure the resilience of the domestic food supply in the months ahead.
Jyoti Fernandes, at the Landworkers’ Alliance, said: This crisis highlights the vulnerability of our globalised food system. We demand immediate and significant government action to ensure everyone can access healthy, affordable food; to secure our food supply; and to guarantee people and small businesses get the help they need to survive this crisis.