Seasonal workers from Romania were flown into the United Kingdom on a special charter flight on Thursday evening to help fill a huge shortage of workers to pick fruits and vegetables on the country’s farms.
A flight from Bucharest, operated by Air Charter Service (ACS), touched down at Stansted Airport near London, carrying 150 people from Romania, Glenn Phillips from ACS told Al Jazeera.
Workers were then taken by bus to farms in the Midlands and the South East.
Farms across Europe are facing an acute labor deficit as a result of the travel bans that have been in place since mid-March amid the coronavirus outbreak. Farmers are deeply concerned about rotting crops, rising prices and a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Britain following Germany
The UK is following the example of Germany, where a program allowing the arrival of 80,000 migrant workers over the course of two months has been under way since April 2. ACS has already operated a total of 13 flights in the past three weeks, five of which have been in the past couple of days, carrying a total of 18,740 workers from Romania and Bulgaria to Germany, said Phillips.
Workers are flying to Germany in controlled groups to prevent the possible infection of others on the way, and are subject to medical checks upon arrival. They then must live and work separately from other staff for two weeks, and wear protective gear.
Announcing the program, Germany’s Agriculture Minister Julia Kloecker said it was a “pragmatic and goal-oriented solution”. She said the hope was to find an additional 20,000 workers over the next two months among Germany’s own unemployed, students or resident asylum seekers.
This is the first time ACS has transported seasonal workers, who would usually travel by the now-halted commercial services such as easyJet and Ryanair. Phillips said a seat costs approximately £250 ($310) on Air Charter, double the cost for a seat on a budget airline.
Plugging gap in UK
Currently, labor experts say, farms in the UK need 90,000 people to fill roles usually carried out by seasonal migrant workers. Thousands of people are particularly needed in the next few weeks as the harvesting season for most farms and crops begins from May.
“Getting workers on farms is absolutely vital for the UK to get through this pandemic,” said Donna Holland from the charity Concordia, a leading supplier of agricultural workers. Concordia has been working to temporarily bring in around 10,000 laborers — half from the EU and the rest from Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia and Barbados.
Concordia, along with two other labor providers, launched a Feed the Nation campaign on March 20, which seeks to recruit people in the UK. More than 36,000 people have applied to Concordia so far, half of whom have lost employment due to the outbreak, said Holland. But only 16 percent have opted to do the online interview. Of the 900 people offered jobs in the past 10 days, only 112 accepted employment contracts.
Reminder for Brexit
In the UK, many farms were struggling with a huge shortage of labor even before the pandemic hit. A combination of a tightening of the labor market and the rise in xenophobic public rhetoric in the UK surrounding Brexit has led to a decline in seasonal workers coming to the UK.
Under the UK government’s new immigration points-based system, only skilled workers from the EU will be eligible for most posts as of January 1, 2021. A proposed exception was to expand the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme, from offering 2,500 visas a year to 10,000. However, the provision falls dramatically short of the 70,000 to 80,000 migrant workers brought into the country’s agricultural sector annually, mostly under the EU’s free movement rules.