Concerns regarding the availability of seasonal labour are high on the agenda for the agricultural sector in the UK, more than two years since the Brexit referendum. Farming is the foundation of the UK’s largest manufacturing industry – food and drink – worth in excess of £108b and employing around 3.8 million people.
A 2017 NFU survey found that the number of seasonal workers working on British farms had dropped by 17%, leaving some businesses critically short of labour to harvest fruit and vegetables. They estimate that horticulture employs more than 80,000 seasonal workers each year, which will increase to 95,000 by 2021.
The challenges in relation to sourcing labour aren’t limited to the fruit and vegetable sector. The food and farming industry, particularly within food processing and the dairy, livestock and poultry sectors all need flexible workforces.
In summary, the NFU’s Seasonal Supply of Labour Survey in 2017 found:
- there was a 12.5% shortfall in seasonal farm workers
- 90% of British fruit, vegetables and salads are picked, graded and packed by overseas workers
- around 60,000-70,000 seasonal farm workers are from overseas
- approximately 99% are from Eastern Europe (two-thirds of whom are from Romania and Bulgaria).
Employers in the food and farming industry are concerned that the UK will be a much less attractive destination for overseas workers as a result of Brexit, in part, due to restrictions on free movement, as well as the increasing costs of travel and a weakened sterling. In short, it makes more financial sense for Romanian and Bulgarian workers to go to countries such as Germany rather than the UK.
In recognition of the horticultural industry’s reliance on seasonal workers, many of whom are from the EU, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and DEFRA launched a new quarterly survey in May 2018. A representative sample of farmer and growers will be randomly selected to provide information on the previous quarter’s labour requirements to include their required – and actual – usage. This will be used to help the Government to monitor the sector more effectively.
Hope on the horizon?
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), allowing foreign workers to reside in the UK temporarily in order to harvest fruit and vegetables, was removed in 2013 due to the increasing availability of EU workers. Germany, Spain, Portugal and Poland have all introduced seasonal agricultural workers’ permit schemes for non-EU nationals, which means – unlike the UK – these countries now have access to seasonal workers from further afield.
In the meantime, the NFU wants the Government to commit to ensure that farmers and growers have access to sufficient numbers of overseas permanent and seasonal workers when we leave the EU.
In February, Michael Gove said that there was a “compelling” case for a replacement for SAWS after the UK leaves the EU next year and, more recently, the Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, has indicated that such a scheme could be introduced after Brexit. The pressure is now on for the Government to provide clarity on the new rules for EU migrants living and working in the UK well before free movement ends in 2019.
This article is from the Autumn 2018 issue of Food for Thought, our newsletter for those working within the food and drink industries. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website. Law covered as at September 2018.
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The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at September 2019.