Seasonal workers scheme 2022 officially announced, including ornamentals, with reaction

On 24 December, Defra confirmed the visa scheme to allow seasonal workers to come to the UK will continue, but the Government "has demanded a plan from the sector to cut the reliance on foreign labour".

Kevin Foster

The Home Office and Defra announced the Seasonal Worker visa route will be extended until the end of 2024, which allows foreign workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector. 

There will be 30,000 visas available next year, but this will be kept under review with the potential to increase by 10,000 if necessary. The number of visas will begin to taper down from 2023 and the sector will have to improve pay and conditions. Following the 2019 review of the pilot, the Home Office has reviewed the requirements placed on the scheme operators and updated the seasonal worker sponsor guidance to tighten the compliance requirements.  

Defra said: "While acknowledging the sector’s reliance on foreign workers, the UK is committed to becoming a high-skilled, high-wage economy and the government has been clear that more must be done to attract UK workers through offering training, career options, wage increases and to invest in increased automation technology. Defra will be bringing forward further proposals in due course on ways to support the sector as well as progressing recommendations in the Automation Review."
Minister for safe and legal migration Kevin Foster said: “The extension to the Seasonal Worker visa route strikes the right balance of supporting the industry while it transitions to employing and prioritising domestic workers.” 
Defra secretary of state George Eustice said: "We had a seasonal worker scheme for agriculture from the time of the second world war and long before we joined the EU.  We recognise that agriculture has unique and seasonal requirements for labour at harvest and have listened to our world leading fresh produce industry to understand their needs." 
Changes to the route, which has run since 2019, will force companies to pay those using the route a minimum salary to discourage poor conditions. It will also be extended to ornamental horticulture "to support our distinguished flower growers in the UK".  
The changes follow a review of the seasonal workers pilot which found the reliance on foreign labour held down wages, disincentivised investment and discouraged workers (both resident and non-resident) into these roles.
Greosn director Alex Newey said: "Whilst on the face of it this is good news for the wider industry, the 30,000 plus 10,000 (possible extra visas) falls woefully short of the true requirement of circa 60,000 as identified by MAC and the NFU. In addition the industry needs clarity around the proposed increase in the hourly rate for staff on the temporary visa scheme. For every business these costs will be significant and given the timing of the announcement, likely un-budgeted and unrecoverable for 2022." Greosn is parent company of labour supplier Proforce and grower Newey.

HTA director of policy and communications James Clark said: “The recognition and inclusion of ornamental into the seasonal workers scheme is really positive news, as is the certainty of a three year period for the scheme to run. I’m pleased that government have heard our calls for this change. Our research showed that a 3,000 increase in numbers just for the ornamental sector was needed and while the reference to a potential 10,000 extra for the whole scheme is encouraging, it is still uncertain and the details on what evidence is required to initiate this extra number, is unknown. We need that clarity as soon as possible from government. Without this it means that ornamental growers will be competing with edible growers for this much-needed labour, pushing up costs and making it difficult to properly plan for their businesses.

"We will re-engage with government in the new year, not least to make the case for our tree producer members – the current six month visa scheme hasn’t been amended and will likely disadvantage these growers. We also need to see more detail on what the government are considering around pay levels for seasonal workers and the potential impact this will have. Progress early in the new year on this specific information is crucial to allow the UK’s £1.6bn ornamental production sector to be competitive, develop and grow.”

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “This is positive news for the thousands of fruit, veg and flower growers that rely on essential seasonal workers to help pick, pack and grade our iconic fresh produce. These growers will be extremely relieved to have clarity over the future of the scheme for the next three years.

“We have worked very closely with ministers and officials to secure the additional visas and the inclusion of ornamentals, which is something we have been calling for and is desperately needed for flower and plant growers across the country.

“With labour shortages so rife across the entire food supply chain, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and continue to engage with the government on the sector’s needs.” 

NFU Scotland's Martin Kennedy said there had been a shortfall of labour of around 20% in 2021 and indications are Scotland will produce less fruit and veg in 2021 with the announcement of 30,000 visas not improving that.

A survey of fruit and vegetable members in September 2021 found one Scottish fruit and veg business that had offered 100 contracts of employment to UK applicants; six were accepted and only three turned up to work. Retention rate for EU and other migrant workers was over 80%, the retention rate for UK workers was 32%.

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