A chartered flight bringing Romanian fruit and veg pickers has landed in the UK amid concerns coronavirus travel restrictions made it difficult to recruit enough workers to meet seasonal demand.
Up to six flights have reportedly been organised by Surrey-based Air Charter Service to bring Eastern European farm workers to Britain in the coming weeks.
The first – carrying up to 180 Romanian workers – arrived at Stansted Airport in Essex on Thursday afternoon, with each seat on the aircraft costing around £200.
The Eastern European pickers will "bring experience" and will work alongside new UK recruits, the British Growers Association (BGA) has suggested.
Concerns over the short supply of seasonal workers grew as an estimated 90,000 positions were left needing to be filled.
UK farmers recently warned that crops could be left to rot in the field because of a shortage of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe.
A campaign was launched in March to recruit more British seasonal workers following difficulties to recruit enough overseas workers.
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Many of the eastern European countries that usually supply the demand for workers, such as Romania and Bulgaria, are currently on lockdown.
Airlines such as EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz have suspended services between the UK and most Eastern European countries, amid restrictions imposed by governments, making it impossible for agricultural workers to reach the UK.
Last Thursday, more than 1,800 workers from across Romania travelled on 12 flights arranged by Air Charter Service to the German cities of Berlin, Baden Baden and Dusseldorf – with most of them due to work in asparagus farms.
Jack Ward, chief executive of the BGA, said he expected the “vast majority” of workers in the UK this season will be British but that businesses cannot run “on enthusiasm alone”.
He said: “When you’re operating on the scale (that large food producers) are, you do need a few people around who know what they’re doing."
Ward pointed out that, historically, a “significant proportion” of pickers come from Eastern Europe and return year after year, saying: “I think what that workforce provides is a bit of experience and know-how to mix in this year with the people who have never done this before.
He hopes coronavirus restrictions could lift before the end of the season, saying: “What we’ve got to be a little bit aware of is that when we get to, let’s say, July and we’re still absolutely flat out in the fresh produce industry, how many of the people who have volunteered have then returned to their original jobs.
“I think what some farms are trying to do is balance what’s available today, what might be available in three months’ time or four months’ time, and the requirements of what is quite a long season.
“They’re trying to cover every eventuality but I sense that this year the vast majority of seasonal workers will be from the UK.
“The numbers you can get on a plane are almost insignificant compared with the total numbers that are needed.”
The “crunch” will come from May onwards when 35,000 to 40,000 workers are required to pick crops such as lettuce and berries, Ward added.