Brexit: Seasonal labour top of grower concerns

Growers reflect on likely effect of EU referendum result.

Capper: opportunities to change things for the better - image: HW
Capper: opportunities to change things for the better - image: HW

Uppermost among growers' concerns about the EU referendum result has been the effect on the supply of seasonal labour. But NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper told Horticulture Week the result also presents opportunities for the industry.

"A lot of the industry has had its head in the sand - it didn't think this would happen," she said. "But we are where we are and we have to move on. There will be problems in the short term, but we now need to look at the opportunities to change things for the better. It's a time of seismic change, like other key periods in British farming such as just after the war. We can shape a completely different vision.

"The most important thing is that we get access to people who want to pick fruit and vegetables. Assuming Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty) is invoked, that gives us two years to sort things out, which is not very long. We have already talked to the Home Office about a replacement seasonal worker scheme, possibly based on the NHS model for bringing in non-EU labour. Already, using only EU nationals is starting not to work for us.

"I'd like to think that whatever government we have next would put food security and self-sufficiency high on the agenda, in which case they have little choice but to support such measures. We will still be a tolerant and welcoming country."

Capper said the board's priorities now also include crop-protection regulation, trade, ensuring that growers are able to compete and plant health. She also pointed out that EU Protection Products Regulation 1107/2009 "is up for review in 2017 anyway".

In crop-protection terms "we would like home- produced food put on a more competitive framework - we aren't even on a level pitch with the EU right now", she said. "There are now opportunities to look at regulatory systems elsewhere, such as IR-4 for speciality crops in the US."

She added: "It's unlikely that we will see trade tariffs. Assuming we don't, we will work hard to ensure retailers continue to support UK growers. We also want the Government to open up capital allowances for the sector and an equivalent to the PO (producer organisation) scheme to support capital investment."

She concluded: "There will be quite a lot of hard work in getting the detail right over the next 12-24 months - a lot of people will groan at that - and there are still a lot of unknowns. But the other leading figures in the sector I have talked to are also up for the challenge."

Trade body English Apples & Pears said it is now "highly likely" that the Government will act to reduce the number of immigrants entering the UK, given the importance of the issue in the campaign, and warned that this poses "a huge potential risk" to the British top-fruit sector, which requires about 12,000 seasonal workers each year.

Chairman and outgoing chief executive Adrian Barlow said: "It is vital that the UK Government takes into consideration the essential requirement for seasonal workers from abroad in order to allow the commercial production of apples and pears in the UK to continue."

His concerns were echoed by British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins, who said he is "very concerned" about the referendum result. "If our current pool of labour is to be severely curtailed or prohibited in future, then the whole viability of our home-grown industry will be at risk," he warned. "Our industry has a current requirement for thousands of seasonal workers and without this resource we will be unable to supply the increasing demand for locally produced crops."

He also suggested that British growers "could decide to transfer some of their enterprises to northern Europe where there is an ample supply of labour and suitable land".

Likewise, British Growers chief executive Jack Ward said: "We need the Government to dispel any uncertainty and address whether there is still an opportunity to work with the EU to fill these seasonal roles to enable growers to meet demand." He added: "The 33 UK producer organisations supported by EU funding and legislation will be awaiting news on whether there is an opportunity for this gap to be filled in terms of the support grant received from our membership of the EU."

Meanwhile, market analyst MLex has warned that the system of EU-protected food names, which includes Fenland celery, Yorkshire forced rhubarb, early potatoes from Jersey, Comber and Pembrokeshire, East Kent Goldings hops and several ciders and perries, is at risk in the UK. Head of the UK Protected Food Names Association Matthew O'Callaghan said: "My fear is that it's going to get lost in everything else that's being discussed."

The Republic of Ireland's farming minister Michael Creed said: "The UK is by far our largest trading partner in the agri-food sector. Ireland is also the UK's largest destination for its food exports. Given these linkages, both countries have a strong interest in maintaining a close agri-food trading relationship."

He added: "The main areas in which potential impacts are foreseen are in relation to currency fluctuations, tariffs and trade, the EU budget, regulations and standards, and customs controls and certification." Creed announced that his department has established a dedicated unit to work on these issues.

England's main fresh-produce growing areas voted disproportionately for Brexit in the referendum. The two UK regions with the highest percentages favouring "Leave" were Boston and South Holland, both centres of field vegetable growing, while all but one local authority region in Kent backed Leave. Wychavon, which includes the Vale of Evesham, voted by an above-average 57.9 per cent for Leave, while Arun on the Sussex coast favoured Leave by 62.5 per cent, and Epping Forest by 62.7 per cent.

Labour - Government urged to help sector remain competitive

Away from EU-related labour issues, Ali Capper and her board colleagues continue to make the case to the UK Government to help keep the sector competitive.

Hosting a Low Pay Commission (LPC) delegation to the West Midlands last month, she explained that UK growers now face "the most expensive labour costs in the world". She said afterwards: "They understand the issues that the sector faces. We are appealing to growers to write to them explaining the impact of the National Living Wage. It’s important that they hear in person from those affected."

The LPC’s consultation with employers and employees runs until 29 July. It will then recommend a minimum wage rate to apply from next April that the Government has already notionally set at £7.60 (see Capper added: "We are also in discussion with the Treasury on the possibility of National Insurance exemption and with the Department of Work & Pensions on pension auto-enrolment. We have made good first steps on these."

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