The Government must use a cross-department approach to resolve labour issues, with the Home Office and Department of Work & Pensions needed to help sort out problems caused by the loss of free movement of staff from Eastern Europe, which is expected in 2019.
HTA policy adviser David Brown spoke at last week's Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee inquiry into the challenges to the food supply chain from shortages of workers and said a broader approach than just asking Defra to help is a potential solution to future labour shortages in horticulture.
"I'm encouraged (EFRA committee chair) Neil Parish said he is going to call (immigration minister) Robert Goodwill to get a Home Office minister view," said Brown. "The committee certainly seems to think they need to do something. In the end it is going to be a Home Office decision. We're arguing for the reintroduction of some kind of permit scheme similar to SAWS (the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme).
"The idea is to do a pilot next year with Ukraine while we're still in the EU to prove seasonal workers will return home. With SAWS, 99% went back. It was a very transparent scheme with the Immigration Office knowing all about it and people knowing they would be deported if they stayed illegally." He says most people around the EFRA table were not familiar with the SAWS scheme and that the idea for using Ukraine is because the UK still has free movement in the EU but not with Ukraine.
Brown says he is waiting for EFRA to report back but adds that there needs to be a "package of measures". The EFRA committee emphasised how apprentices can solve the potential labour crisis but Brown says "they are not going to fill the hole".
He adds that there are difficulties with people coming off benefits to do seasonal work. In the hearing Parish said many MPs are reporting that constituents have concerns about coming off and back on benefits when undertaking seasonal contracts. Brown says EFRA could look at recommending changes to the benefit system "to enable people to take short-term seasonal work and return into the system easily".
Cobrey Farms' Chris Chinn told the hearing he is having to speak to eight people to secure one worker compared with speaking to three to get an employee to sign up at this time last year.
Brown adds that without adequate overseas labour "for the broader horticulture industry as a whole, labour-intensive crops won't be harvested and the growers will have to move into something else. In horticulture, for example in daffodils, they are hugely labour-intensive. In some bits of the ornamental sector there has been mechanisation and automation and no doubt that will continue, but that will only impact a certain amount of the labour force and I cannot see that sort of mechanisation into crops such as daffodils."
Asparagus and blueberry grower Chinn told the EFRA parliamentary committee it is "critical" to trial a scheme for new workers from outside the EU to solve the potential employee crisis that Brexit could cause.
The British Growers Association has estimated that 80,000 seasonal workers are employed now and forecasts that there will be 95,000 by 2020. Brown said there are 75,000 temporary and 10,000 permanent EU workers in horticulture, with 120,000 overall in retail.
Chinn said he has 1,000 seasonal workers, with 94% from Romania and Bulgaria. "We wouldn't have been able to grow the business in the way we have without seasonal labour." He said workers are finding a "huge amount of uncertainty", no longer feel welcome and are "fearful" of returning. "We're competing with Europe for labour," he pointed out.
National Living Wage
Brexit has had an "obvious and dramatic impact on recruitment", said Chinn. He added that the National Living Wage has increased labour costs by 15% but workers are getting 20% less because of exchange rates. "In the current climate, paying more is not very palatable."
Parish said: "We as a committee are very concerned about supply of labour for both the farming and horticulture sectors." The UK will have to make it clear that it welcomes EU workers at least in the next two years, he added, and it is partly the concept about their welcome here that is causing people to worry.
The EFRA committee inquiry stated: "UK food production depends on securing an adequate supply of labour to get the harvest in and to process the produce. But farm and factory businesses have reported, both prior to and since the EU referendum, that they find it hard to hire enough workers. Each year farms rely on tens of thousands of temporary workers, with some 80,000 of these workers currently coming from outside the UK."
Last month, NFU director of policy Andrew Clark gave evidence to the Department of Work & Pensions select committee in a one-off session on the potential impact of Britain's exit from the EU on the ability of UK firms to recruit the workers they need.
Hillier managing director Chris Francis says: "We have a very good labour source in the area being close to Southampton, which has a very large Polish population. We have a lot more fixed permanent members of staff and have moved away a bit from that agency model because we need the expertise."
He adds: "The key thing is deciding what to do with people who are already working here and have been residents for perhaps 10-15 years. When there was the Brexit vote they were worried they might be thrown out of the country, but that's settled down now."
Burston Nurseries managing director James Alcaraz says: "We have had no problems getting the staff we need this year. Time will tell moving forward. Before we had a full labour force available we used to deal with SAWS and labour was not an issue in those days. We will need to come up with tangible solutions."
Andy Briggs, a Government adviser on older workers, says employers should employ one million more over-50s by 2022 to combat age bias and a widening skills gap. Businesses should employ 12% more 50- to 69-year-olds by 2022, he adds. There are 15 million of that age in the UK labour market but only nine million work. By 2022 there will be 14.5 million more jobs but only seven million younger people entering the workforce, leaving 7.5 million jobs unfilled.
Inquiry - The key questions posed
- What are the economic impacts on farm and food supply chain businesses and on consumers from problems in securing adequate labour supplies?
- What is the likely impact of changes to freedom of movement rules post-Brexit on the flow of EU and non-EU labour to UK farms and factories?
- What should the Government do to ensure a sufficient labour supply to meet the needs of farmers and food production businesses?
- What sort of immigration rules need to be in place to allow farm and food businesses to employ EU and non-EU nationals in skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled jobs?
- What contribution could seasonal workers schemes provide to address labour shortages?
- What should the Government and the food and farming sectors be doing to attract and retain UK workers for all parts of the food supply chain?