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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK
Labour shortage hitting UK fruit
By Jenny Cuffe
Radio 4 Current Affairs reporter, on a Warwickshire farm

Strawberries being loaded
The UK strawberry crop needs more pickers

British consumers have an increasing appetite for home-grown strawberries, but a shortage of migrant labour is threatening the 300m industry.

Eastern Europeans are turning their backs on agricultural work for more lucrative jobs elsewhere in the UK, and, as a result, growers have lost acres of fruit.

Beneath the polytunnels, the strawberries are turning dark red and losing their shine.

Dave Thomson, soft-fruit manager at Hillers in Warwickshire, is on the phone to a recruitment agency, asking for news of 50 pickers due to arrive from Poland.

If they don't come by the end of the week, he will have to abandon a field and say goodbye to 52 tons of fruit.

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Hillers is a long-established farm in the heart of Shakespeare country, but you don't hear much English spoken in the 150 acres of strawberry fields.

Two thirds of the workforce are from European Union countries and the rest are students from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine who come with temporary visas under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme, Saws.

At the height of the season, Dave expects to employ 300 pickers, but this year he is 20% down on numbers.

The man at the other end of the telephone, Justin Emery of Fruitful Jobs, is full of apologies but there is little he can do.

The university term has been extended and students aren't ready to come.

More troubling, Justin says, is the fact that Europeans seem to have lost interest in agricultural work.

We are getting village people who are older and don't know English which makes communication very difficult
Justin Emery of Fruitful Jobs

Many have been discouraged by bad publicity about pay and conditions or have chosen to work in other European Union countries like the Netherlands.

Poland itself is experiencing an economic boom and, with it due to co-host the 2012 European Football Championship, there is good money to be made in the construction industry.

"We're now scraping the barrel", says Mr Emery.

"Students would rather work in pubs and restaurants, so we are getting village people who are older and don't know English, which makes communication very difficult."

Some of these workers cause more problems for Dave Thomson than they solve.

Over the weekend he loses seven pickers, who go in search of jobs in the town, and he has to deal with complaints in the neighbourhood about drunken and rowdy behaviour.

He fears the situation could be even worse next year when the Government proposes to limit unskilled migrant labour, restricting SAWS to students from Romania and Bulgaria.

Strawberry pickers
Fruit picking seems to be falling in popularity

However slow his workers, they have to be paid at least the minimum wage so, to maximise their output he employs speed coaches like New Zealander Dave Back.

Watching a young Lithuanian dropping strawberries into a red plastic tray, Dave advises him to try stooping instead of kneeling and to pick with both hands.

Today's going rate is two pounds a tray and the fastest pickers will earn 7 to 8 an hour.

By the end of the week, the unscheduled arrival of a coach load of Poles who have been released by a neighbouring farm, means that for the time being Hillers has lost only five tons of strawberries.

Dave Thomson has now started to make plans for next year.

An extended growing season and increasing consumer demand should inspire him with confidence, but recent experience makes him wary.

"It would be a shame if the UK had to import more produce but if we can't pick it , there's no point in growing it," he says.

Jenny Cuffe's report will be broadcast on Radio 4's Seven Days programme on Thursday, 5 July, at 2000 BST.

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