Plunging pound and threats put EU farm workers off the UK

SUCKLEY, England (Reuters) - For the last 18 years, Jerzy Kwapniewski has left his home in Poland to spend the summer months picking apples and hops on a farm in central England. He plans to look for work in Germany next year.

Migrant workers pick apples at Stocks Farm in Suckley, Britain October 10, 2016. Picture taken October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

The 50-year-old seasonal worker is one of many east Europeans who, shaken by the fallout from Britain’s vote to leave the EU, have either left the country early or indicated a reluctance to return next year.

They are being driven away by a sharp fall in the pound that has eroded the value of their wages back home and concern for their safety as the anti-immigration rhetoric which fuelled the vote spills over into racist attacks.

“It’s a pity,” Kwapniewski said, standing in brilliant sunshine between rows of cider apple trees. “After ... 18 years coming every year I have to think that it ... may change for me and my colleagues.”

Two employment agencies that bring eastern European workers to British farms told Reuters that in the last two months alone they had failed to find workers to fill 600 positions.

One, Fruitful Jobs, said the number of people contacting their Polish and Bulgarian recruitment offices had fallen by 70 percent since the June 23 referendum, compared with the usual 35 percent drop recorded for the latter stage of the season.

Each year, up to 80,000 seasonal workers come to Britain from the European Union to help with the harvest. Farmers say the loss of such staff threatens the wider food and farming industry which contributes around 7 percent of economic output.

British workers show little interest in picking jobs and immigration rules block people from outside the EU from seasonal farm work, so the Farmers Union trade association is urging the government to ease those terms.

Without that, it says, fruit and vegetables could be left rotting on the ground next year, one of many unintended consequences of the unexpected referendum decision.

The government has said it could examine the idea of temporary work permits in the future and will seek to protect farmers as it exits the EU and tries to improve job prospects for Britons.

Other sectors reliant on migrant workers may also find it harder to recruit, including construction, hospitality and the health industry.

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Food and farming contributes 108 billion pounds to the economy, propelled by the EU seasonal workers who spread out across fields at dawn to pick daffodils in January, strawberries in summer, apples in September and Brussels sprouts in December.

Earning at least 7.20 pounds an hour, the work has proved hugely popular with people prepared to travel abroad for wages that go further in their home countries. But while the hourly wage translated into 41 Polish zlotys before the vote, it now equates to 34.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said the vote to leave the EU was a cry for lower immigration, prompting her government to talk about making it harder to hire foreign workers and “flushing out” those firms that do not comply.

The government has since backtracked but the impact of the hardening sentiment is already being felt on the fields.

“The message we’re sending out is: ‘don’t come here, you’re not welcome, we don’t want you and actually you might get beaten up,’” Ali Capper, a partner in Stocks Farm in Worcestershire and Kwapniewski’s employer, told Reuters.

As chair of the Horticulture and Potatoes Board at the National Farmers Union, Capper is being inundated with reports of farms struggling to secure the workers they need.

“Cornish brewers expecting labour at the end of the summer said they didn’t turn up. A hops brewer in Kent said half his Polish team didn’t turn up, and rates of attrition are growing for vegetable growers,” she said.

Andrea Leadsom, minister for farming and a campaigner for Brexit, said she is open to a proposal for a workers’ permit scheme to attract staff once Britain has left the EU but she hoped British workers would also show interest.

“Supporting our farmers and protecting the environment will form an important part of our exit from the EU,” said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), without giving details.

The industry worked with government in 2013 to try to get British job seekers to take up picking jobs, but to little avail.

“Working on the land is seen as the lowest form of employment,” Capper said, looking out across the Malvern Hills that once inspired Edward Elgar to compose his patriotic march, Pomp and Circumstance.

“If what we’re hearing anecdotally is correct ... we’ve got a crisis coming at us in 2017.”

Spread over 200 acres of rolling countryside in Worcestershire, Stocks Farm grows apples and enough hops to make 46 million pints of beer each year, helped by 70 seasonal staff.

The weather-beaten Kwapniewski, who starts at dawn to pick apples by hand, cradling them so they do not bruise, said he had originally viewed the job as something a student would do, but had come to feel part of a team, coming back each year.

Now he has looked into whether he could find similar work in Germany or Austria, the first signs of a change brewing.

“Your government is not giving any direction,” he said. “We were grateful to the country that let us earn something.”

Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Philippa Fletcher