Monday, 26 June 2017

How much you you pay for home-grown strawberries?

Strawberries in season are to be eaten and enjoyed in vast quantities. Prices are now probably rock-bottom, the market is flooded with locally grown strawberries at their very best. Below: I paid 6.99 złotys (£1.50) for a kilo of beautiful strawberries at Biedronka yesterday (box half-empty by time I took photo!). They were reduced from 8.99 złotys (£1.90), and flying off the display stand at the front of the shop. All over Warsaw now, stalls are appearing on street corners, by Metro stations, selling strawberries by the bucket.

And they taste as good as they look. Last month, in London, I bought a punnet of just six large  Kentish strawberries at the fruit & veg shop on Pitshanger Lane, paying £1.99 (10 złotys at the exchange rate of that day, the pound having slipped 20 grosze since then). My father and I ate them, acclaiming these the best strawberries we'd eaten in a long while. Just three each. Worth it. Six shillings and sixpence per strawberry in old money, but delicious, sweet, perfect.

Local strawberries in season are just so much better than the commodity shipped in from Mediterranean greenhouses in February. But why are the British ones so pricy today?

It is down to labour.

On Saturday, riding through southern Mazowsze, I came across busloads of Ukrainians being driven from field to field to pick the fruit. Some came in minibuses on Ukrainian number plates, others in buses registered in eastern Polish towns close to the borders. And, on bus stops across the regions, job ads in Ukrainian. Why is the Garden of Poland so dependent on foreign labour?

Registered unemployment in the Grójec poviat (district) is currently 2.9%. That compares to 20.8% in the Radomski district to the south, and just 2.6% in Warsaw. (South of Radom it's even worse; in Szydłowiecki district it's 26.6%). And this is the claimant rate, which when compared to Eurostat's figures for economic inactivity show around one-third of those claiming are actually employed in the grey economy. So real unemployment around Grójec, Tarczyn and Warka is closer to 2% than 3%.

Fruit-picking is by definition seasonal work. You cannot feed yourself let alone a family from picking strawberries in late spring and everything else that's pickable until the final apples are picked in early autumn. So the only people who'll do it are those whose currency is sufficiently weak to motivate them to come over seasonally to pick fruit. Given the Ukrainian hryvnia is nearly seven to the złoty (five years ago there was around 2.5 = 1zł), coming to Poland makes as much sense as going to the UK once did for Poles who wanted to pick fruit for good earnings.

Will this last?

Two weeks ago, Ukrainian nationals were given the right to enter the EU (though not UK and Ireland) for 90 days without a visa. Poland and Ukraine had a bilateral accord giving Ukrainian nationals the right to stay and work temporarily in Poland; last year 1.2 million Ukrainians registered for work here. They have helped the Polish economy ticking along as unemployment fell to record low levels. Factories, supermarkets, farms, hotels and restaurants across the country have all benefited from access to legal Ukrainian labour. Now, these same Ukrainians who have helped shore up economic growth have the right to cross into wealthier EU member states and work (with varying degrees of legality) in the agricultural sector. What will happen in Poland? Will there be a sudden exodus of Ukrainian fruit pickers heading westwards?

Meanwhile, in the UK, there have been numerous articles in the press about the shortage of fruit-pickers. The weak pound, the nasty atmosphere towards central and eastern Europeans fomented by the tabloid press, and general uncertainty created by Brexit, have led to many fruit farmers being unable to find reliable workers to pick their crop. This feeds into the supply chain. To fulfil their contracts, often signed before the referendum, farmers have to up their pay (by 20% in some parts of East Anglia, I read in the FT) to get their fruit harvested. And ultimately, the consumer has to find the extra cash.

Assuming a hard Brexit with no transition period or negotiated trade agreements, WTO rules come into force, an 11.2% tariff will apply to strawberries. To British strawberries being sold to the EU, to EU strawberries being sold in the UK.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news to Britain's strawberry lovers, but Brexit could push the prices of strawberries up by around 15%-20%, even locally grown ones.

Below: inflation as measured by the Office of National Statistics. In May 2016 it was 0.7%, in May this year it's 2.7%. And this is before Britain leaves the single European market and the Customs Union, before (may it not happen!) WTO rules kick in.

This time last year:
Zamość - the beautiful, must-visit town of Poland's east

This time two years ago:
Voting closes in citizens' participatory budget

This time three years ago:
Beginning of the end of PO [Civic Platform]

This time four years ago:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time five years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time seven years ago:
Literature and biology

This time nine years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time ten years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

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