Coronavirus: Brits overtake migrants looking for fruit picking jobs

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
UK applications for fruit and veg picking jobs have soared. (Eddie Keogh/Reuters)

British people are now more likely than migrants to search for jobs on UK fruit farms, new figures suggest.

Data from Indeed shows UK nationals have overtaken jobseekers abroad in their interest in such agricultural work for the first time in at least four years.

Analysis of search trends on the major jobs site shows soaring interest among Brits in roles that UK farms and employment agencies have traditionally struggled to fill with domestic applicants.

The figures point to an exodus from Britain’s empty restaurants and bars to its farms, with former hospitality workers among the most likely to search for fruit-picking roles.

Farming chiefs said a recruitment drive for UK nationals had received a “fantastic response,” as the sector struggles with lower migrant labour flows and growing demand for UK food.

The growing migrant labour gap

Almost all of Britain’s seasonal workforce in horticulture is typically made up of EU nationals, with agencies directly recruiting overseas. Migrants also make up a large proportion of permanent roles in many parts of Britain’s agricultural and food industries.

But the coronavirus is severely limiting migrant worker numbers, sparking a recruitment drive at home. Many would-be migrants are either unwilling or unable to move to fill seasonal roles because of the virus and travel curbs, despite UK and EU efforts to facilitate their movement.

READ MORE: Furloughed staff urged to pick fruit and veg to fill migrant labour gap

Official figures suggest seasonal migrant farm labour is currently down by around two-thirds on typical levels. The shortages are a significant challenge for farms as demand has soared for fresh fruit and vegetables during the crisis.

The industry has stepped up domestic recruitment, with ministers appealing to millions of furloughed and laid-off workers to fill temporary roles. The government has co-launched a ‘Pick for Britain’ recruitment site alongside agricultural leaders.

Signs recruitment drive could pay off

The number of searches for fruit picking roles per million total UK total job searches on Indeed. (Indeed)

Indeed figures published on Tuesday mark an early sign the recruitment effort could pay off, not only attracting Brits but also boosting migrant interest. Interest soared as the campaign was launched and the UK went into lockdown.

Search levels for fruit picking roles as a share of total searches for UK jobs were 160 times higher at the end of April than the start of March.

The share of all UK-based jobseekers using Indeed who were looking for fruit picking roles soared by 234% in April year-on-year. The share of all overseas users of the UK site who searched for similar roles was also up though less sharply — 71% higher.

Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, told Yahoo Finance UK it had been working closely with the government to boost domestic recruitment. He said he expected a further announcement this week on the government’s recruitment drive.

“We have already seen a fantastic response from the public wanting to pick for Britain this summer. Farmers are incredibly proud to be producing food for the nation at this crucial time, but there are challenges and the support of the British public is incredibly valued,” added Bradshaw.

Some scepticism remains in the sector about UK labour however. Employers often complain UK recruits fail to turn up to new jobs, or only last a few days doing long shifts of physically demanding, typically low-paid work.

Exodus from restaurants to fields

Indeed data also shows strong interest from workers with backgrounds in Britain’s hospitality sector, one of the most hobbled by the government’s lockdown to contain the virus.

Analysis of CV data shows the previous jobs that have seen the biggest rise in applications for fruit picking roles. Head chef, chef, sous-chef and bartender were the top four. Painters, electricians, carpenters and groundworkers were also in the top 10.

READ MORE: UK faced ‘perfect storm’ picking fruit and veg even before COVID-19 hit

“Jobs related to food and hospitality have been severely impacted by shutdowns and our data suggests that some people who worked in these industries — as well as construction, which has ground to a near halt — are turning to fruit picker roles as a lifeline,” said Jack Kennedy, UK economist at Indeed.

He said search levels overall were “extraordinarily high,” adding: “The virus has turned the labour market on its head.