Consumers face higher food prices unless Britain opens up a scheme for foreign fruit pickers to countries outside the EU, the Government’s chief migration adviser has warned.
Nearly 22,000 Romanians and Bulgarians are employed each year under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme – but this will close when access restrictions are lifted at the end of 2013. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) found that the British horticulture sector could shrink if farmers fail to find replacement workers, which could trigger a surge in labour costs and ultimately higher prices for consumers.
Professor David Metcalf, MAC chair, said the Government should consider proposals for a new scheme that targets non-EU workers, in particular countries that have a high number of agricultural students, such as Ukraine. Mr Metcalf said if the labour supply “dwindled” once the scheme closed to Romanians and Bulgarians, operators may have to “drive wages up” to secure staff. “In those circumstances, therefore, it’s possible that supermarkets would charge higher prices for their celery and strawberries and so on,” he said.
Supermarkets may also start to import produce from overseas to keep consumer prices competitive, he said. “If the growers need to pay much higher wages, the prices to the supermarket would go up then, it’s possible then imports would go up.”
The consequences of a shrinking labour supply include seeing the entire horticulture sector in Britain contract and lead to an increase in technology being used instead of manual labour, he said.
Temporary curbs were imposed on Romanians and Bulgarians in 2005 to protect the British labour market, but they expire in December.