British strawberries are not only known to fans of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The harvest is underway, but not without problems. There is a reason for this.

With a view to the current harvest season, British berry farmers have called for more visas for seasonal workers from the EU. It’s still early in the season. “However, we expect a certain labor shortage,” said the head of the industry association British Berry Growers, Nick Marston.

“It is therefore vital that the Home Office now issues an additional 10,000 visas to avoid delays and meet the needs of hard-working British berry growers and our consumers,” said Marston.

In December, the ministry extended its visa program until 2024. It provides for up to 30,000 visas per year for the horticultural sector, with the possibility of 10,000 more. For the first time, ornamental plant growers can also submit applications. According to estimates by the association, the industry needs 20,000 workers. The proportion of berry farmers in the total seasonal workforce is normally around 40 percent – that would mean that a total of 50,000 helpers would have to come into the country.

Fewer returnees after Brexit

When asked how many workers are actually employed and how many are still needed, the association was unable to answer and referred to the four responsible personnel service providers. There were no reactions from these as of Friday afternoon.

Brexit has serious consequences for the industry, which has annual sales of around £1.6 billion (€1.9 billion). The seasonal workers, who mainly come from Eastern European EU countries such as Romania, have required a work visa since the beginning of 2021 because the British government has abolished freedom of movement. Anyone who has previously worked in the UK does not need a visa. However, the number of these returnees in 2021 fell well below the expected level, said association boss Marston. It is feared that the numbers will continue to fall. The status does not help attract new workers from the EU, Marston said. That is why the special visa program is all the more important.

“The British berry industry has made significant progress in automation in recent years,” said Marston. However, the tasks on the farms are complex. Among other things, they require robotic hands and are also dependent on artificial intelligence. “That’s why we’re still a few years away from automation and robotics being able to be used on a broad basis for harvesting.” The special visas would fill the gap until technology could replace human pickers.