UK horticulture needs a replacement seasonal worker scheme, but one run by labour providers that does not tie workers to a single business and avoids other "failings" of the previous scheme, the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) has said.
In a position paper published last month, it says operating such a scheme "should be open to all labour providers who can demonstrate that they meet the criteria" rather than being "confined to the previously limited small number of operators". It should also allow workers to move between employers rather than remain with only one, as with the previous Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), abolished in 2013, which the paper likens to "an official bonded labour scheme" and says it "runs counter to current Government modern slavery policy".
Labour providers, by contrast, already operate in an "established regulatory environment" licensed and regulated by the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, it notes. Such a system would bring greater flexibility and so increased efficiencies because labour providers can "move individuals between contracts, making the maximum use of an individual migrant worker’s time in the UK", so reducing the total numbers required per season, while balancing supply and demand between a number of employers.
It would also overcome an "endemic" shortcoming of SAWS that recruitment costs were passed on to workers, contrary to the UN’s International Labour Organization Convention, yet which "persists in certain quarters to this day", it adds. It suggests that some large grower businesses that wish to might set up their own labour provider arms, "as some have done".
But the proposed scheme should not crowd out other sources of labour and risk "foster[ing] agricultural businesses which are once again completely reliant on a seasonal workers scheme". The ALP proposes that posts filled this way should first be advertised locally for at least a month.
It also proposes that scheme users work with Department of Work & Pensions representatives to "provide work opportunities within the local community to untapped sectors of the market such as students in higher education, into urban centres and regional areas where unemployment remains and where internal temporary migration may be possible", while larger employers should attempt to engage "harder to reach sectors of the working community" including ex-servicemen, the disabled and ex-offenders.
The scheme itself could draw workers from a number of source countries, ranging from EU nationals, non-EU countries of Eastern and south-east Europe, Commonwealth nations or other countries "where seasonal labour supply forms part of trade negotiation agreements", the position paper suggests. It also proposes "allowing refugees and asylum seekers who are in the UK but currently not allowed to work to undertake such roles" along with illegal migrants "for whom there is no reasonable prospect of agreed deportation".
The ALP was among those giving evidence to the parliamentary Environment, Food & Rural Affairs committee inquiry into the sector’s labour needs earlier this year, in front of which ministers dismissed the need for a revived SAWS before the UK leaves the EU in 2019, while keeping its possible later implementation "under review".
The committee’s report said it "remained concerned that the Government could not act quickly enough to establish a new scheme and new sources of labour if labour shortages became acute". The ALP wants labour market analysis to be independently corroborated by the Home Office Migration Advisory Committee to determine whether such a scheme is needed, setting "an annual/biennial/triennial threshold" of need.