Farms demand migrant labour scheme as UK workers 'leave contracts early'

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4 min read
Workers plant crops in a field near Boston, Lincolnshire. Tens of thousands of people have applied to pick fruit and vegetables as farms across the UK face a season without their usual workforce flying in from other countries due to coronavirus travel restrictions. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)
Workers plant crops in a field near Boston, Lincolnshire. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

UK farms are facing an “unsustainable” shortage of seasonal workers, with farming leaders warning British workers cannot fill the gap left by a shortfall in migrant workers.

Soft fruit, daffodil and asparagus growers are among the sectors recruiting for next year, but the end of EU free movement means many growers are still in the dark about where they will get their workers from.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is demanding the government restore a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for migrants in horticulture, as the previous scheme was only scrapped in 2013 as farms could largely rely on EU workers via free movement.

But the government is pressing on with an overhaul of Britain’s immigration system from the start of next year, with much greater restrictions on EU nationals’ ability to work in the UK. Recruitment is typically difficult in the sector, but has taken a hit from the Brexit vote and the coronavirus.

The government hopes UK nationals including the mounting ranks of the unemployed can help plug the gap, but new figures cast doubt on the success of its official Pick for Britain recruitment campaign earlier this year.

Many UK workers “left farms part way through their contract” over the 2020 growing season, according to the NFU.

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A new industry survey suggests UK residents made up only 11% of this year’s workforce, despite intensified government and industry recruitment efforts during the pandemic, including targeting millions of furloughed workers.

The average UK resident working on a UK farm for the first time stayed under 10 weeks, whereas non-UK workers stayed more than 14 weeks and returnees stayed 18 weeks.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw called Pick for Britain a “fantastic initiative,” but said seasonal work “simply isn’t a viable solution” for many UK residents.

“What we’re asking of them is huge; in reality it means people needing to work in very rural areas, away from their homes and families, where they will only have guaranteed work for between three and six months.

READ MORE: Brits overtake migrants looking online for fruit picking jobs

“Understandably, these workers continued to look for work closer to home, meaning many left farms part way through their contract and leaving growers having to re-recruit, which impacted on overall productivity levels and increased production costs.”

Similar challenges in recruitment in social care have sparked calls for higher wages in the sector from government migration advisers, but farms, retailers and shoppers may not welcome higher prices. Labour costs for horticultural firms are reported to have jumped by 34% over the past five years already, with COVID-19 exacerbating cost pressures, according to the NFU.

The government has caved into pressure to launch a new seasonal workers pilot this year, but it came short of industry demands for the number of workers and future policy is up in the air.

The pilot is expected to run only until the end of the year, followed by a review, suggesting there could still be no scheme in place when other immigration reforms take effect at the start of 2021.

“The frustrating thing is this situation is easily solved with the implementation of a seasonal worker scheme, building upon the pilot scheme that has already operated successfully for the past two seasons,” said Bradshaw.

READ MORE: Furloughed staff urged to pick fruit and veg to fill migrant labour gap

“If this is not in place by the beginning of the year, we would be the only developed country in the world without such a scheme. It would seem remarkable for the government to take such a gamble when it will hit UK businesses at a time when economic recovery is paramount.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain and we are continuing to work hard to ensure our farmers and growers have the support and workforce they need.

“Now the UK has left the EU, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is working closely with the Home Office and other government departments to ensure that there is a long term strategy for the food and farming workforce.”

He added that the government will continue to highlight the opportunities for work in horticulture to the growing numbers of people looking for work in the UK.

The Pick for Britain campaign means industry needs have been met as many UK workers have stepped up to the challenge, he added. Around 2 million visits have been made to its website since its launch.