Immigration likely to increase if seasonal worker scheme is not replaced, NFU says

Failing to replace the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Scheme (SAWS) would be likely to increase immigration into the UK, NFU horticulture and potatoes board vice-chairman Anthony Snell has argued.

Hayley Campbell Gibbons and Anthony Snell
Hayley Campbell Gibbons and Anthony Snell

Speaking at a debate held at last month's Fruit Focus event (24 July), Snell, who employs 250-300 SAWS workers on his Herefordshire fruit farm, said: "There is a strong argument that SAWS actually reduces immigration. They pay their taxes yet don't use hospitals because they are young and fit and then they go home again."

Migrant labourers will still be required without SAWS, but by arriving via the open job market they would be more likely to move on and settle for longer, Snell suggested. "We must keep pressing this point."

The Government has been edging towards a decision on whether a replacement scheme will be implemented when the SAWS arrangement expires at the end of this year. An announcement is expected shortly.

NFU chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell Gibbons pointed out that the Migration Advisory Committee's report on the issue, while broadly supportive of SAWS, left open the option of a trial withdrawal. But she described this as "a big gamble" and said: "It would delay investment and have a huge impact on confidence."

Snell agreed: "Some in Government have picked up on the argument that the industry will be all right for a couple of years without SAWS, but that's rubbish. We would lose the valuable advances we have made."

Campbell Gibbons explained: "Defra is supportive but it needs cross-cabinet support so we are engaging with other Government departments. It's a challenge to explain why horticulture is a special case."

Agricultural workers: Candidate calibre

HOPs Labour Solutions general manager James Davies told the meeting at Fruit Focus: "We recruit for SAWS in Romania and Bulgaria, and 80 per cent of those people are graduates."

He continued: "On the open market you might get 80 per cent unemployed people, so with SAWS it's a higher calibre of person."

As for UK labour, which the recruitment company has sought to bring into the industry, Davies said: "Our experience is mixed.

"Maybe one in 30 of the people Jobcentre Plus sends us will be any good, though we also have UK guys among our high earners. But it's the cost of finding them - £1,200-1,500 for a UK worker compared with £150-£200 for SAWS."

He added that making a future SAWS scheme conditional on growers also taking on a proportion of UK labour is achievable "but depends on the ratio. One in 200? Fine. One in ten? Probably not."

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