The UK agriculture and horticulture sectors have long relied on migrant labour. This reliance has increased in recent years due to the seasonal nature of demand and falling unemployment in the UK. This briefing therefore examines current concerns within the industry about a labour shortage and further concerns about the impact of Brexit might have on labour supply. One solution but forward by some has been the return of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme (or something very like it), and the briefing provides a background on this. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme is the subject of a Westminster Hall debate on 6 July 2017. The debate is sponsored by Neil Parish, who was chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the last Parliament. The Committee produced a report Feeding the nation: labour constraints in April 2017Jump to full report >>
Labour Force Survey estimates suggest 27,000 people from other EU member states worked in UK agriculture in 2016. A further 116,000 EU nationals worked in the UK’s food manufacturing sector.
During peak seasons, the agriculture sector is further dependent on a large temporary workforce - thought to be around 75,000 strong - to supplement regular, permanent staff in harvesting crops. It is estimated that 98% of this number are recruited from elsewhere in the EU.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme
A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was introduced in 1945 to address post-war labour shortages. Initially an exchange programme encouraging students to work in UK agriculture during harvest times, it evolved as a flexible tool to meet changing labour demands in the agricultural sector. In its last phase the scheme allowed fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to do short‑term, low-skilled agricultural work for a maximum of six months.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was closed at the end of 2013 upon the lifting of restrictions on the free movement rights of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. The Coalition Government took the view that there are sufficient numbers of workers within the UK and EU labour forces to meet the needs of the agriculture and horticulture sectors. The present Government adopted this approach.
Current labour shortages
The industry is reporting now that it has a shortfall in workers and production of some crops is at risk. Although farmers and growers of seasonal fruit and salad depend on migrant workers, according to farmers, there are not enough available to meet current needs. In December 2016, the NFU deputy president Minette Batters warned that fruit and vegetable crops could potentially remain unharvested and similar concerns have been expressed more recently by organisations representing growers of soft fruit.
The NFU is therefore calling for the return of the SAWS scheme or something akin to it and other trade bodies have made similar calls.
Access to labour after Brexit
The agriculture and horticulture sectors fear labour shortages once EU free movement law no longer applies in the UK. Industry witnesses told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme is needed in order to avoid a sudden recruitment crisis upon the UK’s exit from the EU.
The Government is yet to announce what its post-Brexit immigration policy will be for citizens of the states remaining in the EEA. The points-based system applicable to visa applicants from the rest of the world does not currently cater for unskilled migrant labour. Tier 3 of that system has never been opened as it was always assumed a need for low skilled labour could be met by the resident workforce and EEA migration.
The Government has said there is no need for a new scheme whilst the UK remains in the EU as freedom of movement still applies. Whilst stressing that it recognises the sectors’ concerns, the Government has disputed industry claims of labour shortages. In the longer run it says that the needs of the industry after Brexit need to be understood in the context of the immigration arrangements in place. It has also highlighted that there may be ways to make the sector more attractive to UK workers as well as productivity gains that could be brought by new technologies.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7987
Authors: Terry McGuinness; Gabrielle Garton Grimwood