As growers begin to schedule seasonal workers for the fast-approaching 2017 campaigns across the UK, the National Union of Farmers is renewing calls for the government to trial a seasonal agricultural permit scheme sooner rather than later.
It could be one way of avoiding a labour crisis within the agricultural industry, according to Ali Capper from the NFU, who says that access to a competent and reliable workforce is paramount as the season approaches.
“The NFU will continue to press for a trial of a seasonal agricultural permit scheme to be launched now. If we leave the introduction of this scheme until after Brexit the damage will have already been done and crops will be left to rot in the fields,” she says.
“The effects would be felt right through the food supply chain ending with the public, the people eating the food we produce. The importance of a strong, domestic food supply cannot be understated.”
Recently the NFU called for visa-controlled permits for agricultural workers as a way to negate labour shortages at UK harvesting periods for fruit and vegetables.
Fears that EU workers from countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, who have traditionally made up the majority of the fruit picking workforce and will not be able or inclined to come to the UK to work, have been mounting since last year’s referendum in Britain.
British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins recently said there is uncertainty in the UK soft fruit industry about how to plug potential labour shortages as the sector employs 31,000 seasonal workers every year.
“UK citizens do not like to come and pick our crops and so we have to bring in workers from the EU; from Poland, Czech Republic and Bulgaria etc. They represent 95 percent of our workforce and without them we are absolutely sunk,” he said.
“70 percent of these workers come back every year; there’s a disinclination now due to the Pound being devalued and the fact that they feel unwelcome which is a big problem to us.”
Capper stresses labour shortages on British farms is an issue now and recruiting seasonal workers is already proving to be challenging.
The NFU labour providers’ survey shows evidence the industry is experiencing acute problems in recruiting seasonal labour with 47 percent of labour providers already considering the supply of labour to be inadequate to meet demand.
“Horticulture alone needs over 80,000 workers to plant, pick and pack fruit and vegetables. That number will rise to 95,000 in the next four years. Shortages aren’t just limited to fruit and vegetable growers, workers from across the skill spectrum are needed for an industry that is worth £108 billion to the nation’s economy. People are needed to process and pack meat in the livestock and poultry businesses and to drive complex machinery on cereals farms,” she adds.
Immigration Minister hints at tax to employ EU workers
Meanwhile, speculation is mounting over whether UK firms will have to pay a £1,000-a-year levy to hire workers from the EU following comments made by immigration Minister Robert Goodwill MP.
Although Downing Street is playing down his comments claiming that no such tax is currently on the agenda, the MP hinted to the EU Home Affairs Sub Committee yesterday (January 11), that the levy is being considered.
Although Goodwill was talking about skilled workers as opposed to seasonal, he did say that a levy could be introduced to UK firms looking to employ EU workers.
“In April we’re bringing in for non-EEA workers coming into the UK, the immigration skills charge. For example if one wishes to recruit an Indian computer programmer on a four year contract, on top of the existing visa charges and the administration involved around that, there will be a fee of £1,000 per year so for four year contract that employer will need to pay £4,000,” he said.
“That is something that applies to non EU, that may be something that’s being suggested to us that could apply to EU. But I’m not in a position at the moment to really speculate as to what the settlement will be post-Brexit negotiations.”
Speaking directly about seasonal workers agricultural workers scheme he said such a scheme is one of the options that could be “open to us post-Brexit”.
“This agricultural workers scheme would not contribute to net migration because net migration figures relate to people staying for more than 12 months and seasonal agricultural workers scheme is generally for people coming for less than six months.”