What next in the struggle to resolve horticulture worker shortages?

Horticulture sector expert "not convinced" by points-based system.

Nursery workers: retaining staff has become a big issue
Nursery workers: retaining staff has become a big issue

HTA policy adviser David Brown says he expects the next step in the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry into agriculture/horticulture worker shortages to be to call in the Home Office for a recommendation on future immigrant worker schemes.

The sector is facing a labour crisis with free movement of workers within the EU likely to end after Brexit completes in 2019. Figures from Defra's agricultural accounts put the value of paid labour at £2.5bn in 2015, equating to around 14 per cent of total financial inputs.

The number of regular employees in UK agriculture, excluding seasonal and casual labour, is 115,000. If seasonal and casual labour is included, the total rises to 182,000. Office for National Statistics figures show more than 22,000 EU-born migrants working in agriculture in 2015, rising 41 per cent since 2011. This is around 20 per cent of the 115,000 regular employees in the sector. For seasonal labour, EU workers form a much larger proportion. Brown told the EFRA committee last month that a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is required "to fill the hole".

The AHDB submission to EFRA says: "The agricultural sector and the wider supply chain are heavily dependent on EU migrant labour. In theory, the short-term economic impact of problems securing labour supplies would be that farms and food supply chain businesses would either have to raise wages in order to make the jobs more attractive to UK workers or they would be unable to continue to operate in the UK."

"It would appear that UK workers would prefer permanent work, better locations and more sociable hours. In addition, the UK benefit system does not work well for seasonal workers when their contracts come to an end. If freedom of movement rules change, because much of the agricultural labour requirement is low-skilled, EU workers would not be eligible for work visas under the current points-based system."

A recent study by the Oxford Observatory for The Financial Times points out that in its current form 96 per cent of migrants currently employed on UK farms would fail entry under the UK system for non-EU migrants. AHDB adds: "The impact of changes in freedom of movement rules are likely to impact hugely on the availability of EU seasonal labour. This gap is unlikely to be filled by the UK labour force without significant changes to wages and conditions." Possible solutions from the AHDB and NFU are:

- Working visa entry, where the Government recognises a requirement for EU seasonal lower-skilled labour.

- A SAWS-type scheme allowing EU workers to work in the UK industry for a set period of time.

- A student agricultural workers scheme similar to SAWS.

- Recruiting workers from Commonwealth countries.

- A points-based system.

- Increasing agricultural labour productivity.

- Increasing automation.

- Increasing incentives for UK workers.

More details needed

Brown says he is "not convinced" by a points-based system because it is aimed at those with formal qualifications and many workers' skills "aren't necessarily equated to formal qualifications". He questions whether a students SAWS scheme would generate sufficient numbers and suggests travel costs may be an issue for a Commonwealth scheme. However, he points out that more detail is needed on all the ideas.

Scottish seed potato and daffodil co-operative Grampian Growers has also submitted a response to EFRA. It outlines the importance of seasonal labour from the EU, the serious lack of local/UK labour for the job and options for the future. Grampian says it has 350 seasonal flower pickers spread across 13 farms, primarily from Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

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