The UK government announced a new pilot scheme for fruit and vegetable farmers to be able to employ non European Union (EU) migrant workers for seasonal work, on September 6. The National Farmers Union (NFU) President, Minette Batters, described today’s announcement as “a major victory for the NFU,” but the CEO of the British Growers Association (BGA) said it falls “well short of requirements.”
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Visa’s for this pilot scheme will only be given to up to 2,500 workers and it is expected to run from spring 2019 till the end of December 2020.
Nick Marston, the chairman of British Summer Fruits (BSF) – the trade body which represents 97 percent of the country’s berry industry – told WikiTribune that 10,000 workers are already needed now. “UK horticulture employs 60,000 seasonal staff from the EU annually, with berries alone accounting for 29,000 workers. Our farms are reporting staff shortages of 10-20 percent already.”
Jack Ward, CEO of BGA, said the government had been made aware of the industry needing more than 2,500 workers from their discussions, and that the organizations own survey of growers in 2016 found that British growers needed between 75,000 and 80,000 seasonal workers annually. This figure is anticipated to rise to between 85,000 and 90,000 by 2020, according to the BGA.
Ward told WikiTribune that “without access to an adequate supply of seasonal [workers] there is a danger that we could be facing a real threat.”
The government’s announcement follows concern by farmers that after Brexit the industry will struggle to fill the demand for seasonal workers, with the NFU reporting that there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural production in 2017.
The UK previously had a scheme called the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to allow European workers to fill seasonal demand, including on farms. But the government ended SAWS in 2013, arguing that since European countries had joined the EU it was no longer needed, and that they wanted to open up jobs for British workers. However, the UK’s employment rate is the highest it has been since 1975, according to the UK’s ONS. Then the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, which could mean British farmers no longer have such easy access to workers via freedom of movement.
Marston told WikiTribune the old UK SAWS scheme allowed 21,250 workers to enter the UK from Romania and Bulgaria in 2013, prior to them joining the EU, and they still needed an extra 21,000 staff a year on top of this. And over the next two to three years as the Romanian economy grows there will be fewer people from there wanting to come to the UK and work, he said.
The government said that more automated harvesting solutions will be used on British farms in the future, but Marston said that looked unlikely by 2019. “It is unrealistic to think that robots for fruit picking will be in place by the time the UK leaves the European Union”,” he said. “The robotics in development are only being designed for strawberry picking.”
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See WikiTribune‘s earlier story for more: British berry industry could ‘cease to exist’ without European workers’ scheme