A thriving agricultural sector is vital to the British economy, and fruit and vegetable production plays an important role in this. Soft fruit production in the UK has increased by 130% in the last 20 years; however, unlike many other industries, the fruit and vegetable sector relies heavily on seasonal labour during peak production periods, with much of this seasonal labour coming from the EU thanks to the free movement of people.
There is growing concern from the agricultural sector about the potential for significant shortages in seasonal labour as a consequence of Brexit. The Government has promised a significant reduction in the number of unskilled EU workers coming to the UK after Brexit, with high-skilled workers being given priority. The National Farmers’ Union has said there are already reports of a slowdown in workers coming from the EU, a shortfall of 10% so far this year. British Summer Fruits has reported shortages in workers of between 10% and 20%.
This shortage in workers raises fears that labour costs will continue to increase, exacerbated by reports this summer of fruit and vegetables being left unpicked and going to waste due to insufficient available labour.
Temporary visa scheme
A pilot scheme announced on 6 September 2018 by the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will provide temporary visas of up to six months to migrant workers when the UK leaves the EU following Brexit. This will enable the sector to employ additional workers during peak times of the year in an effort to reduce labour shortages. The number of visas will be restricted to up to 2,500 workers per year coming to the UK from outside the EU.
The pilot will operate between spring 2019 and December 2020. It will be monitored by the Home Office and DEFRA throughout the period, and any evidence that migrant workers are not returning to their home countries once their visas expire could result in abandonment of the scheme.
These proposals recognise the importance of agriculture to the UK and are an attempt to support the sector during its busiest times. This will be particularly crucial in the immediate aftermath of Brexit when the full impact on immigration, in particular migrant workers, is not yet clear.
Beyond the pilot
When the pilot scheme expires, its impact and effectiveness will be fully assessed. By then, the impact of Brexit should also be more certain. The Government will subsequently be in a better position to consider the best way to support the sector and address any further concerns. It was stressed by the Government that the sector must remain competitive, but it highlighted that almost all members of the OECD still make use of seasonal labour, and therefore that this will remain an issue that needs to be addressed.
In the longer term, alternative measures such as increasingly automated harvesting, combined with improvements in technology, will become more widely available and deployed in the sector, reducing the reliance on seasonal labour.