Romanian fruit pickers flown to UK amid crisis in farming sector

Romanian workers are being flown in to help feed Britain amid a continuing recruitment crisis in the agriculture sector.

Special charter flights have started flying into the UK from Bucharest with desperately needed workers for British farms that risk losing their crop of early summer fruit and vegetables because of the coronavirus lockdown.

One plane was due to land in Stansted airport on Wednesday afternoon, with another landing on Thursday with 150 people onboard.

Matthew Purton, the head of commercial aviation at Air Charter Services, said the company had tendered for six more flights “for a mixture of farms” in the coming weeks, which could see 450 workers flown to help avert food shortages.

Romania lifted restrictions to allow farm workers fly to overseas, and ACS started flying workers into Germany three weeks ago, with eight flights so far and more on the way.

Purton said Romania had put in place procedures to reduce the risk of coronavirus contagion.

“All passengers will be temperature checked, will have to fill in a questionnaire for a health declaration and will be given hand sanitiser and masks on the flight. They will also be socially distanced in the seating,” he said.

UK farmers are following Germany after a “feed the nation” appeal backed by the environment secretary, George Eustice, failed to recruit enough British workers.

It is understood that the first plane was chartered by G’s Growers, one of the UK’s biggest salad growers producing 250m packs of lettuces and celery a year.

The farming industry needs as many as 90,000 workers to harvest fruit and vegetables, but with borders closed in many countries it appealed to students and laid-off restaurant and hotel staff.

Brighton-based Concordia, one of the biggest recruiters of volunteer workers in the country, said it had 35,000 applications of interest after the appeal.

While the response was significant, it said only 16% – 5,500 people – opted to interview for a role, leaving a gap between supply and demand for pickers.

In a sign of the impact of coronavirus on the economy, the company said “almost 90% of applicants [were] from UK citizens, half of whom have lost their livelihoods due to the Covid-19 outbreak”. It added only 30% had worked on a farm before.

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The company has filled all vacancies for April and “all roles now start from the beginning of May – as the harvesting season begins for the vast majority of farms then”.

In a statement it added it was “working with other charities representing industries from hospitality, entertainment, the military, tourism and sports, and their ex-employees who have been especially impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak – to get people into farm roles and earning an income”.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was not involved in the charter flights, but a spokesperson said it was “encouraging as many people as possible to take part in seasonal working opportunities”.

They added: “We know the demand for seasonal agricultural workers will rise in the months ahead, which is why we are working hard with industry to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need ahead of this time.”

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