The first time the UK needed a seasonal agriculture workers scheme was during the labour shortages after World War Two, when there were fears that food would lie unpicked and rot in the fields. Fast forward to 2018 and we have the very real concern among farming businesses about who will bring in the harvest. Does Michael Gove’s pilot scheme for migrant seasonal farm workers, which was announced last week, go far enough to reassure the farmers of today?
Although it is definitely a step in the right direction, in my view it does not go far enough. As an immigration lawyer I see first hand from my agriculture clients how damaging the uncertainty of Brexit has been and how challenging it has made managing their workforces.
Farmers from across the UK have reported a slowdown in the recruitment of EU workers since the referendum. National Farmers’ Union (NFU) figures show that the shortfall of seasonal workers this July was 10 per cent, with that figure expected to increase.
So what does the new scheme offer? The pilot scheme will grant six month visas for 2,500 non-EU workers a year to work on fruit and vegetable farms in the UK. The initiative will run from Spring 2019 for the rest of the Brexit transition period until December 2020. Government ministers hope that it will help to tackle labour shortages during peak production periods, but it has been met with a mixed response from the farming community.
While it is encouraging that the Government has listened to the industry – most notably a two year lobbying campaign led by the NFU – 2,500 visas per year is simply not enough.
When you consider that it is estimated that the UK needs 80,000 seasonal workers and many of these jobs remain unfilled, 2,500 is a drop in the ocean. It is well known that farming businesses find it hard to recruit UK workers for this seasonal work. It is hoped that the new farming vocational qualification will go some way to help encourage more young people into the industry, who may consider this kind of work as a step on the ladder. However, as commendable as the qualification is, it will not deliver the numbers needed.
The introduction of new technology to reduce the need for seasonal workers to bring in the harvest has not yet had a big impact. In fact it is estimated that by 2020 the number of seasonal workers required will rise to 90,000.
Numbers of visas aside, restricting the scheme to vegetable and fruit farms is also a concern. Other agricultural sectors also need additional workers at certain times of year. For example poultry farmers need thousands of extra workers in the run up to Christmas.
Some farming leaders have also expressed worries about the six month restriction. With the range of crops grown in the UK, some growers need access to seasonal labour all year round.
The pilot scheme is for non-EU workers, as currently EU workers’ travel to the UK to work is unrestricted. We don’t yet know what the immigration situation is going to be for EU citizens after Brexit. If their ability to travel to the UK to work is restricted, it is to be hoped that this scheme is extended to include them.
But it is not just the status of seasonal workers that farm businesses are worried about. Many farming businesses rely on EU workers who have settled in the UK and now live here permanently. These people are farm managers, agronomists, vets, data analysts and estate managers.
Their situation lies outside the scope of this new scheme. Although much remains uncertain for EU nationals living permanently in the UK, in late August this year the Home Office issued new guidance confirming that they need to make an application to the home office to confirm their status by 30 June 2021.
Failure to do so means they may become an overstayer in the UK and be subjected to the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment policy’. If this is the case they are likely to experience difficulties re-entering the UK after holidays, working, accessing health care (or being liable for hospital fees), opening up bank accounts, renting property and obtaining a driving licence.
Many of my farming clients are already taking steps to ensure their EU workers are aware of the steps they need to take and it is to be hoped that others will follow suit.
While I welcome the spirit of the new pilot migrant workers scheme, a broader solution is needed. One that takes account of the number of seasonal workers required, the sectors that need those workers and acknowledges the important role that EU workers who live permanently in the UK make to the industry.
A lot has changed since the first migrant seasonal workers scheme in the wake of World War Two, but the need for farmers to know they have a secure workforce remains the same.
Lisa Mulholland is an immigration solicitor at Stephens Scown LLP. The immigration team is unique in the region as it advises both individuals and businesses on all aspects of UK immigration. To contact Lisa, please call 01392 210700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org