In the UK, there is a shortage of around 10,000 seasonal workers. However, the British government does not want to help farmers with visas for foreign workers, fearing to contradict their Brexit promises.
Tim Chambers, a large-scale farmer in southern England, who owns 20 farms with around 1,700 seasonal workers, is a headache for the British government. Almost all of his harvesters come from abroad, such as Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and even Indonesia.
The British government, filled with Brexit supporters, does not want to allow cheap foreign labor, only an absolute minimum. They had promised that these were jobs that British workers should be doing, should they get paid higher salaries.
Visa Allocation Capped
Chambers had been trying to hire domestic workers for ten years, but he was unsuccessful. Apparently, locals were not interested in seasonal work, or farm work, despite his efforts to popularize the job. Chambers is currently in charge of the strawberry harvest, which requires additional seasonal workers, whom he has great difficulty in finding. Nonetheless, the UK government refused to help him get more visas, which made Chambers very frustrated.
The Home Office issues 45,000 work visas, with a six-month maximum cap, while the agricultural industry requires 55,000, which means that there are a shortage of 10,000 visas.
Claiming to Promote Education
"It seems a little bit like harassment," says Chambers on the government's policy. "If supermarkets pay me more money, I would happily hire seasonal workers with a salary of £100,000 per year." However, it is far from the current situation, which Suella Braverman, the Home Office minister, acknowledged. Nonetheless, she refused to help farmers with hiring foreign labor or issuing additional visas.
According to economists like Jonathan Portes, from King´s College London, it is easy to answer the question: the labor shortage is not a problem for the Brexiteers, they even want it that way. "Their policy is to squeeze out low-wage labor sectors, forcing them to invest in training or in technology," says Portes.
A Dream-Like Economy
To understand the strategy of the Brexit government, their vision of the economy must be taken into account. Their former leader, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, repeatedly mentioned this vision.
Firstly, they aim to significantly reduce the number of migrants, especially of cheap laborers. For instance, Johnson said that those laborers only bring down wages, in an interview in January 2020. Secondly, the Brexiteers aim to build a new economy, as if it were a dream. "Our vision is an economy with top salaries, low taxes, highly educated workers, high productivity, and rapidly increasing wages for low-wage earners," said Johnson in 2019.
His successor as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, a Brexiteer who is no longer Johnson's friend, but still shares his values, has been bombarding the nation with a slogan for weeks, "High Wages, Top Skilled Economy". The UK aims to train top people and to bring in the brightest minds from other nations. "We want those migrants," says Sunak.
Farmers Should Invest in Technology
But what does this mean for the strawberry harvest? It means that either well-paid British workers take over the job or robots do it. Unlike granting visas to low-wage workers, the British government is generous in developing agricultural technology, allocating about €230 million to promote innovation. Prototypes are already in use, but they are not yet ready for the market. If they were operated by well-paid engineers, the Brexiteers' dream would become a reality in the strawberry fields.
However, this is not yet the case, nor is it applicable in all areas where low-wage workers dominate. Economists are skeptical not only of the utopian economy where most people are well-educated and well-paid, but also of the idea of farmers being forced to invest in robots and give up foreign labor. Jonathan Portes from King's College is doubtful about both.
Farmer Chambers argues that the strategy of the British government is nonsensical. It cannot squeeze the industry while, at the same time, demanding that it spend more money on higher wages and robots.
The shortage of harvesters will still exist. The government has only been reacting when consumers are affected, standing in front of empty fruit and vegetable shelves. But so far, it has not happened yet.