UK's farming industry threatened by lack of EU labor after Brexit

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  1. Despite repeated warnings from farmers, UK government yet to implement a new labor plan
  2. Over 98 percent of the UK’s seasonal workforce are from the EU
  3. 'A [berry] punnet that costs £2 today to be £3 post-Brexit' unless a solution is found
  4. Near-full employment means UK workers can't fill seasonal jobs

A stark warning came from the then chairman of British Summer Fruits (BSF) last summer. The BSF is a trade body which represents 97 percent of the UK berry industry.

Laurence Olins said the government should understand the urgent need for a global employment scheme in place by September 2018 at “the very latest” to allow the industry to recruit for the 2019 season.

“Without it, an incredibly successful soft fruit industry, which contributes millions of pounds to the UK economy, will be crushed,” Olins, who has since stepped down,  wrote in a report.

However, there is still no seasonal agricultural scheme in place, and the new chairman of BSA, Nick Marston, says the UK government hasn’t given positive signs of introducing one.

There is already a significant shortage of staff [in the soft fruits industry] and the concern is that will be worse next year,” he told WikiTribune.

Chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston
Chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was the UK’s longest running migration scheme (academic study) and allowed European migrants to fill seasonal jobs. The scheme stopped in 2013despite the National Farmers Union (NFU), the British Growers Association and a report by the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, all warning that ending it would lead to a labor shortage several years later.

Then the UK voted for Brexit, leaving its farmers’ futures even more uncertain. The major consequence of this is that, under Brexit, free movement between EU countries and the UK will end in March 2019. Free movement of labor is one of the four freedoms of the EU which allows citizens within EU countries to move freely to travel, live and work. 

With more than 98 per cent of its 80,000 seasonal workforce coming from the EU, British horticulture relies on free movement for EU workers.(Financial Times). Around 69 percent of staff working on UK meat plant floors are also from the EU27 countries (the period between 2007–2013 when the EU had 27 member countries), according to the British Meat Processors Association. It represents about 80 percent of the meat processed in the UK.

The National Farmers Union’s labor providers survey reports there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural production in 2017. This is before the UK has even left the European Union, and before UK-EU free movement has ended.

NFU Horticultural Board chair Ali Capper told WikiTribune that, prior to the referendum, the UK was a very attractive place for seasonal workers.

However, she says there’s been a drop in the number of EU workers coming to the UK due to various factors: the decline in the UK currency, since the UK voted to leave the EU (The Guardian), workers no longer feeling valued and improving economies in the rest of Europe.

Ali Capper (CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: NFU)
NFU Horticultural Board chair Ali Capper, on her own farm (CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: NFU)

Capper’s claims are backed up by a BSA report which says the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told that Romanian workers were increasingly turning down UK work offers because they no longer felt welcome. The level of hate crimes reported one month after the EU referendum was also 41 percent higher than the same month from the previous year.   

“Because of my role with the NFU, I made a mistake of allowing one of my long-standing members of staff from Poland to be interviewed by a couple of the national media. And he had some very unpleasant phone calls afterwards,” Capper says.

On her own farm, Capper has a team of 20 Polish workers wanting to return next year. However, she says political uncertainty means she can’t even guarantee whether they will be able to, and that this lack of confidence means growers are already disinvesting in the UK.

Why should the UK consumer care about a lack of EU workers?

The BSA’s Nick Marston says if there is a shortage of labor, the prospect of berry prices increasing is “absolutely inevitable.”

“A punnet that costs £2 today will be £3 post-Brexit, if there is no scheme in place.”

Other European countries already have permit schemes to allow people to come from outside the EU. This is on top of access to European labor, which the UK may no longer have in the future — depending on the UK-EU deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiates.

Ali Capper says Portugal is bringing in people from China to pick fruit and vegetables; Spain is bringing in young people from Morocco; Poland is bringing in people from the Ukraine and Germany set up a scheme in 2017 to bring in Ukrainians. 

“Almost every [EU] country offers some sort of visa or permit scheme,” she says.

Price hikes wouldn’t be limited to fruit and vegetable produce either. 

Chief executive of the BMPA, Nick Allen, told WikiTribune that demand will drop.

“So the farm gate price will drop, so more farmers will go out of business.”

He says that if this happens, retailers will just import from somewhere else and the cost of meat, which has the highest WTO tariffs, will go up “dramatically.”

Chief Executive of the British Meat Packing Association, Nick Allen
Chief executive of the British Meat Packing Association, Nick Allen (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY-SA 4.0)

If no deal is struck with the European Union, meat imported and exported between the EU and UK would be subject to World Trade Organisation rules (WTO), meaning tariffs of around 50 percent, (Internal Market and Consumer Protection report).

Allen wonders if the government will see food go short and expensive, or just “quietly turn a blind eye” to meat coming in with a lower standard.

“It would be a shame because essentially we’d be exporting our welfare concerns, sort of shutting our eyes to it really … An animal is an animal, it shouldn’t matter where in the world it is. It should still be treated to a high welfare standard.”

Even under a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, as well as a WTO scenario, UK food prices would rise, according to the NFU’s 2016 report.

What about new free trade deal opportunities? About 80 percent of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU, according to a government report, and almost all of the UK’s trade is with countries with which the EU has already negotiated a FTA (government report).

Why not fill the jobs with British people?

A government press release in November announced that the UK’s employment rate was the highest it had been since 1975. More than 75 percent of the population, or 32 million people, were in work.

“If you looked at the numbers of unemployed in Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk, Norfolk, you would be in the hundreds, and yet the demand for labor [there] is in the thousands,” Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, an organisation representing horticultural growers, told WikiTribune.

The BMPA’s Nick Allen says it’s a similar situation for the UK’s meat industry.

“A lot of the areas where our [meat] plants are have got two percent unemployment while even most economists would say five percent unemployment is pretty much full employment.” 

For every 10 British employees who come to work in an abattoir, Allen says only one will stay. 

According to a BMPA report, many meat processors undertake recruitment drives at local job centers or through school career programs, but with very little success.

“Of people who say they are interested in working in a plant, few will turn up as agreed, very few will agree to start work and UK nationals failing to complete even a week’s work are depressingly familiar,” the report says.

The report also says that Eville and Jones, which provides most of the official veterinarians in abattoirs, has had to advertise for the first time. Over 90 percent of the official vets in the UK are from the EU27 countries.

Is automation an option?

Allen says a lot of its members are looking at mechanization, but you can only take it so far.

“The classic this time of year is pigs in blankets — little sausages wrapped in bacon. You try doing that with a machine.”

In the soft fruit industry, robotic picking is not an option for fruits such as raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, according to a BSA report. It says, “extensive use on a commercial scale seems unlikely before 2020.” [The UK is leaving the EU in 2019].

Chief Executive of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward
Chief executive of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jack Ward, of the British Growers Association, doesn’t think the shortfall in agricultural jobs can be replaced by automation in the short term.

We’re probably looking at a five to 10 year horizon before we get commercially viable options,” he says.

So will SAWS or a similar scheme happen?

BSA’s Nick Marston says the UK’s fruit industry will already be short of labor in 2018.

“Until I hear something positive from number 10 Downing Street and the Home Office, who are the people who are the arbiters of this, I’m suffering from a fairly severe lack of confidence.

“If no scheme is put in place, the berry industry, effectively, will cease to exist.”

Others are more positive.

“Increasingly, politicians almost open their conversation with, ‘Yeah, we’ve got the message, you want labor, we understand it,'” says Allen.

However, the UK’s meat industry isn’t seasonal, so even if a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) or a similar one is reinstated, this wouldn’t fully solve the problem.

Under SAWS, 98 percent of workers returned home at the end of the season, according to the Financial Times. While this is trouble for Allen, it is likely to please Brexit voters. These seasonal workers are here for less than a year, so do not count towards net migration figures.

Capper says she believes that when the electorate voted for Brexit “they voted for control of immigration.”

“They didn’t vote against immigration.”

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