Plans for a scheme to hire overseas seasonal agricultural workers have been welcomed, but employers and experts say the government still needs to do more to address post-Brexit migration concerns.
The Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs jointly announced yesterday that the government would run a two-year pilot scheme to let UK farmers recruit up to 2,500 non-EU fruit and vegetable pickers each year for six months at a time.
“This pilot will ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year,” said home secretary Sajid Javid.
The UK previously had a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which allowed UK farmers to hire workers from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months. However, this was scrapped in 2013 to coincide with the date transitional labour market controls were lifted on the two countries, which had joined the EU six years earlier.
The new pilot, which will run from spring 2019 until December 2020, has been welcomed by business groups and lawyers. However, they stressed the government must not rest on its laurels and work towards clarifying broader post-Brexit migration policies.
“We would urge government to go further… With employment at record highs, there is a real risk that a lack of labour could hit UK prosperity,” said the Recruitment & Employment Confederation’s chief executive Neil Carberry. “We need an approach to workers from the EU that is open to all skill levels and controlled – ensuring those who come are here to work.”
Simon Kenny, principal associate in Eversheds Sutherland’s immigration team, added: “We hope similar assessments will be made of other areas of the economy prior to Brexit.... Future restrictions on free movement are very relevant to employers relying on [staff in lower skilled jobs], so similar consideration for such industries would ease some of their concerns.”
And Jane Gratton, head of business environment and skills policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Now is the time to be shouting from the rooftops that the UK is a great place to live and work. We need an immigration system that is open and flexible to help firms attract and retain the skills and labour they need to compete in global markets post-Brexit.”
Meanwhile, Gary McIndoe, immigration solicitor and managing director of Latitude Law, said the 2,500 worker cap in the pilot was “a drop in the ocean” compared with the actual workforce needs of UK farmers.
“Of course, EU migration into the UK has dropped dramatically since the Brexit vote, and it may now be the case that the UK is simply no longer an attractive place for EU workers to come to work,” he added.
Last year, former home secretary Amber Rudd commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out a report into EU migration, with a view to assessing post-Brexit migration options. That report is due later this year.
Two scheme operators will be chosen to run the seasonal workers pilot in due course. Worker applicants must be over the age of 18.
According to statistics cited in the government’s announcement, the UK’s soft fruit production has grown by 130 per cent over the last 20 years. Automated options for the sector are not widely available, as fruit picking requires being able to critically assess whether crops are ripe and to use enough force to harvest the produce, but not so much as to damage it.