Caribbean workers helped to save Norfolk's fruit harvest

Tim Place, owner of fruit firm Place UK in Tunstead, with punnets of strawberries

Tim Place is owner of Norfolk fruit firm Place UK, which has recruited workers from as far afield as Barbados to complete this year's strawberry harvest - Credit: Archant

Fruit pickers from as far afield as Barbados were flown in to save Norfolk's strawberry harvest as farms struggled to recruit EU workers after Brexit.

The industry faced a jobs crisis this year due to a shortage of its usual eastern European workers, prompted by the end of free movement and compounded by the Covid pandemic.

Home Office figures reveal more than 16,000 horticultural labourers were shipped in from 37 countries for the 2021 season as farmers looked further afield to fill the gaps.

Most came from Ukraine and Russia, but there were also recruits from countries including Nepal, Kenya and the Philippines.

Barbados also provided more than 100 pickers - some of whom were recruited by Norfolk fruit growers Place UK, at Tunstead near North Walsham.

Owner Tim Place said prior to Brexit, the company's 550-strong seasonal workforce was solely recruited from Romania and Bulgaria.

But only 60pc of those people returned this year, meaning the rest needed to be recruited by agencies recruiting in countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Macedonia - and Barbados.

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"Without them we would not have managed," said Mr Place. "We would have failed completely. 

"It has been very, very difficult, but we have managed - just. 

"The upside of having these different nationalities coming here is the social side. We have an international farm camp and the social side has much improved - the football tournament has been especially exciting."

Mr Place said there were some worrying delays getting his new workforce in place earlier in the season - but the weather came to their rescue. 

"It was very difficult to get the visas and everything seemed to be very late and delayed," he said.

"We were lucky that this year's harvest was three weeks late because of the cold weather in spring. If the season was on time we would have been really struggling."

Mr Place said 60pc of this year's workforce were returnees from Bulgaria and Romania, but he expects that figure to shrink again to 40pc next year - leaving the firm increasingly reliant on the government's Seasonal Workers scheme.

He now hopes for further enhancements to the pilot scheme, which was introduced in 2019 and extended to offer 30,000 six-month visas for foreign farm workers this year to "supplement domestic UK labour".