Wimbledon, strawberries and immigration

I really love sports! I remember that as a child, I could easily spend hours playing football, basketball, or badminton. Winning or losing a game, belonging to a team, communication & learning; sport gives us so many important lessons which can shape our adult life. When I moved to Croatia and then Italy, football was such a powerful way to meet new people. At the beginning, I didn’t speak Croatian or Italian so sport was a fantastic way to build new friendships and learn basic words in both languages. All of these experiences helped me a lot to feel less isolated and more valued. They helped me to break down barriers & feel more confident. Sport also creates ‘Community Champions’ and enables people to integrate better in their communities.

I like tennis and Wimbledon is one of my favourite tournaments in the annual calendar. There is drama, a bit of shouting and some fantastic matches. Strangely, strawberries and Pimms are often associated with this most famous grass competition in the world. Most people would argue that there is very little correlation between strawberries and tennis. However this year, while watching Wimbledon, I wondered what the impact of Brexit in the agriculture sector is.  

Although the Government increased the number of seasonal workers visas from 30,000 to 40,000, according to the Home Office, this offer was taken up by only 28,000 people. Am I surprised? Not at the slightest. If I had a chance to choose, why would I want to come to Britain? Paying for the visa, which as far as I understand is not transferable, demonstrating that I am self-sufficient, by providing my online banking balance, or not being able to extend my stay proves that the policy won’t work. There are far too many obstacles to even vaguely contemplate coming over. It is so much simpler to travel to any other member state or country countries such as Norway, which belong to the Schengen area.

I find it really interesting that so far, none of the Leadership contenders to replace Mr Johnson to become the next Leader of the Conservative Party and the next Prime Minister, have said much about immigration and shortages in many sectors of our economy. In my view, instead of desperately trying to reduce work-related immigration, something that we were promised in 2016, we might be even more reliant on “foreign labour and produce”. Only this year, the National Farmers Union said that 70,000 workers are needed.

Ali Capper, the executive chairman of the British Apples and Pears, told the Financial Times: “We had some catastrophic food waste across crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce. We have got major shortages of workers at the start of the season and I’ve never seen anything like that before”. She also added: “If immediate actions were not taken to deal with the shortage of visas for fruit pickers, apples and pears could soon go unharvested”.

I am not an economist, I also don’t have a magic wand and therefore making any predictions is rather difficult or impossible. However, the current financial and cost of living crisis, high inflation might mean that many businesses, not only in agriculture sector, might go out of business. As we all know: coffee shops, supermarkets, the whole hospitality industry, nurses, and social care staff; the list is long and the need is great, also in terms of the “manpower”, to boost our economy.

When a new Prime Minister is elected at the beginning of September, I hope that, rather than being obsessed with reducing immigration, he or she will find better and more sustainable ways to fulfil gaps in the labour market not only by offering “British jobs to British people, upskilling but, by also recognising that Britain has hugely benefited from diverse and foreign workforce. Let’s “park populism” and appealing slogans. We have already scored “an own goal”. Let’s not leave it too late before, once one of the greatest world economies, ends us on peripheries of global influence.


* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and councillor for Handside ward, Welwyn Hatfield.

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  • nigel hunter 17th Jul '22 - 10:56am

    I remember a time when we were the 4th largest economy.We have since dropped down that list.

  • Brad Barrows 17th Jul '22 - 12:18pm

    The UK should not be having to seek immigrants to fill unskilled job vacancies when there are large numbers of ‘jobseekers’ claiming Universal Credit or Jobseekers Allowance. Perhaps we should be making clear to employers that they need to increase wages to attract staff – possibly from the ranks of those claiming ‘jobseeker’ benefits – rather than expecting cheep Labour from abroad to be shipped in to meet their needs.

  • Andy Boddington 17th Jul '22 - 2:17pm

    This shows no understanding of the difficulties that farmers and horticulturalists face. Far from being unskilled, picking fruits and hops requires a lot of practical knowledge, dexterity, stamina and experience. The seasonal pickers kept the rural economy alive in many rural areas, including here on the Marches. They can’t just just be replaced by Jobseekers who don’t have the skillset. Everything was working fine until the government decided to choke off the supply of seasonal workers, grossly underestimating how many people are needed for the harvest period. We didn’t need to panic about this before. Now fruit is being left to rot in the fields, greenhouses and orchards. Farmers are desperate because of the Tory need to live by slogan while ignoring the economic struggles of rural areas.

  • Yeovil Yokel 17th Jul '22 - 3:53pm

    Perhaps, Brad, you should spend this October through to New Year down here in Somerset picking apples in the cold & wet on minimal pay so that you can post comments like that on the basis of experience rather than ignorance.

  • It would seem Ali Capper has no real appreciation that the UK has changed since 2016 and is still living in the past, given her idea of action is for someone else ie. the government, to do something, because it is too much to expect her members to do anything.

    With the high level of economically inactive people already resident in this country and a shrinking economy – necessary to meet our climate change and sustainability commitments, there is really little need for us to continue our dependency upon cheap immigrant labour. Having more people in work, earning a living wage will greatly facilitate the creation of the wealth necessary to pay a Basic Income.

    Yes it is going to be hard, but the problems we are seeing at the airports for example are largely the result of actions airline and airport employers took…

  • Roland,
    “ With the high level of economically inactive people already resident in this country”
    So we raise the retirement age, or state pension age or do we find employment for the “idle poor”?
    Sounds awfully like Victorian attitudes to social and economic problems, next thing will be the reintroduction of the workhouse!

  • @Andy – Sounds awfully like Victorian attitudes to social and economic problems
    Only if you believe the only solution is a modern version of the Ordinance of Labourers…
    and so perpetuate the view that there are (essential) jobs in our economy that should only attract absolute minimum wages, exploitative working conditions and are only really suitable for “johnny foreigner”.

    Currently we have circa 8.5M people who are economically inactive resident in the UK, with this number being bolstered by people choosing not to return to work after the CoViD lockdown. However, with a shrinking economy we can expect this number to grow.

    Looking at the “shortage” figures it would seem most could be addressed through circa10% of these people becoming economically active again. So the questions we need to be asking is what does it take to get these people to become economically active again. I suspect a big part of it is around pay and conditions, which is where Ali Capper’s members (and the government) play a part – what are the changes necessary to make people come forward and do these seasonal jobs and how much of the problem is down to Ali’s members not investing in harvesting equipment..

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Jul '22 - 3:27pm

    Of the 8.5 million:
    ” a lot of these people (27%) are students. 26% say they’re economically inactive because they’re too sick (most of whom have a long-term illness). 22% are looking after family or the home. And 13% have taken early retirement. 12% said there was some other reason for their economic inactivity. ” ( https://fullfact.org/economy/economically-inactive/ ) So that’s only 1 million that might conceivably want this work.

  • …and of those million, how many live anywhere near where the vacancies are?

    As for ‘harvesting equipment,’ to quote a recent Guardian article: ‘Creating a robotic implement that can simply pick an apple and drop it into a bin without damaging it is a multimillion-dollar effort that has been decades in the making.’.
    And: ‘The fruit-picking robot has picked an apple successfully about half of the 500 or so times it has tried so far. ‘
    I doubt it would fare well on strawberries!

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Jul '22 - 7:14pm

    “And 13% have taken early retirement.”

    Implying that while they may not yet have reached state pension age some might be declining physically through ageing and no longer up to doing a hard day’s work picking fruit.

  • @Jenny, Cassie + Nonconformistradical
    Yes, I’ve seen the breakdown. However, rather than apply a 100% rule, I have applied an 80-20 rule, namely, I suspect 20% of those economically inactive have chosen to be in this state because they do not want full-time and/or exploitative work, but would be interested in returning to work in some way. This is supported by the (albeit limited) data around the changes in people’s attitudes to work and priorities brought about by lockdown and furlough. Also we shouldn’t forget the analysis of the 2016 referendum vote – a significant proportion voted the way they did because they wanted more jobs and opportunities for UK residents…

    What is certain, with the massive reduction in applicants from overseas workers, there is going to be a workforce shortage, so how do we resolve it, given the UKs ability to exploit overseas workers seems to be a thing of the past.

    “Harvesting equipment” – yes it is easy to focus in on the picking machines and miss all the associated and enabling equipment, however, just like UK manufacturing in the 1980’s where we promoted CIM (Computer Integrated Manufacturing) but actually sold MRP (Materials, Resource, Planning) ie. better stock and production management, because they were so far behind. I suspect (from the farmers I know) they are similarly behind on basic investment in their business operations.

  • Strawberry harvesters are already in use…


    Our strawberry picking robots work with the table-top growing systems widely used around the world. They are capable of autonomous navigation along crop rows, locating and picking ripe fruit, grading picked berries, and placing them directly into punnets.

    ‘Dogtooth Technologies is releasing its latest fleet of strawberry-harvesting robots’ [June 2022]:

    Dogtooth also dramatically increased the size of its fleet of strawberry-picking robots for 2022, and will use 70 of its third- and fourth-generation robots on farms in the UK and Australia as part of its picking-as-a-service business. […]

    Dogtooth’s robots typically work in teams of 6-12 under the control of a human operator. One of Dogtooth’s goals for the next 12 months is to bring to market their next-generation ‘Gen5’ robot, which has been designed to be operated by customers’ own personnel instead of Dogtooth’s.

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