Guest blog – Stopping the rot? The UK seasonal agricultural workers pilot scheme

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As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, Steven Thomson (SRUC) and not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.

Headlines this year have highlighted how the shortage of seasonal farm workers in Scotland has led to unharvested fruit and vegetable crops. The Migration Advisory Committee’s Final Report on EEA Workers in the UK Labour Market (18 September 2018) acknowledges that if no seasonal agricultural workers scheme is put in place –

there would be a contraction and even closure of many businesses in the parts of agriculture in the short-run, as they are currently very dependent on this labour.

In their 2017 study for the Scottish Government, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) asked fruit and vegetable farm business in Scotland what they would do without access to foreign seasonal farm workers. The figure below represents responses from 51 businesses that directly employed seasonal migrants. They represented about two-thirds of the total seasonal migrant workforce in Scotland.

SPICe_Blog_2018_Seasonal Workers_Business change

Given the importance of seasonal workers in Scottish agriculture and horticulture, this blog examines the pilot seasonal agricultural workers scheme announced by the UK Government.

The new pilot seasonal agricultural workers scheme

On 6 September 2018, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced a pilot scheme to bring migrant workers from outside the EU to UK farms. The Department of environment food and rural affairs (Defra) has provided information on the pilot –

  • Workers must be at least 18 years old and from outside of the European Union.
  • Scheme operators will be licenced by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and have to ensure farms where labour is placed adhere to relevant legislation, including the National Minimum Wage.
  • The scheme will be run by “two scheme operators” who will oversee the placement of workers.
  • The pilot will run from spring 2019 until the end of December 2020 and will be monitored by the Home Office and Defra.
  • Defra and the Home Office are keen that longer term agri-tech solutions be developed.

Will the pilot resolve the problems?

Some issues around the pilot scheme are discussed below, drawing on insights gathered during SRUC’s recent Farm Workers in Scottish Agriculture study.

  1. What happens under a no-deal Brexit? Both the EU and the UK Government’s plans are for a continuation of EU seasonal worker rights during the proposed transition period until the end of 2020. However, there is no clarity on access rights in the event of a no deal or beyond the transition period.
  2. Can 2,500 non-EU workers fill the recruitment gaps? It is estimated that between 70,000 to 80,000 migrant workers are engaged in UK agriculture. SRUC’s study estimates around 9,250 seasonal migrant workers were being used on Scottish farms in 2017. It is widely reported that there is a worker shortfall of 10%-20% in 2018 resulting in unharvested crops and lost business revenue. In this light, it is hard to see how 2,500 additional workers will alleviate the ongoing recruitment problem. Indeed, in Scotland the 15% to 20% shortfall experienced in 2017/2018 means that Scottish businesses alone could use the lion’s share of the pilot quota.
  3. Will the pilot scheme have quota flexibility? Given the uncertainties over migration policy (especially with the EU) and exchange rates post-Brexit, the UK Government is likely to need flexibility to rapidly increase the visa quota in response to industry need. However, even with flexibility, there will likely be lags in the system between identifying worker shortages, the policy response, and the recruitment and placement of workers.
  4. Will there be equitable geographical or sectoral allocation of workers? It is unclear how the scheme will ensure that the finite quota of workers are effectively placed across all sectors and places in need. How businesses are prioritised for worker allocation is likely to be contentious.
  5. How will workforce mobility be accounted for? A proportion of the seasonal workforce are highly mobile. Many workers move between farms because of relative ripe fruit abundance, pay rates, presence of friends and family etc. Given that some businesses may only need scheme workers for short periods (e.g. three months during peak harvest periods), it is unclear whether the scheme will allow workers to be relocated, provided their total stay is less than six months.
  6. Will permits be reallocated if workers fail to stay the full 6 months? In such instances, it could lead to the scheme underperforming in terms of business needs and expectations. For example, if the 2,500 workers work six days per week for six months, the scheme would provide 360,000 work days.  However, if the average length of stay is only four months then the number of workdays provided by the scheme would fall by a third.
  7. Will workers be permitted to return on an annual basis? Returnees are the bedrock of many soft fruit businesses and a proportion of the existing workforce remain working on farms for up to ten months per year. It is unclear how the pilot scheme could support farms that need continuity of key workers over a prolonged period.  Further, if the scheme prefers new candidates each season (as the previous Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme did), the added value of retaining staff across seasons will be lost.  This may mean greater costs and lost productivity to both the business and the individual worker, through the need for new workers to undergo training and familiarisation.
  8. Who will be responsible for ensuring scheme workers return home? The UK Government has stated that there will be two scheme operators. Will they be responsibility for ensuring workers leave the UK after their placement ends?  How that will be governed in practice remains unclear.
  9. Will the scheme provide workers from 1 April 2019? Given the extended growing season and existing recruitment challenges, scheme operators will need to advertise, locate and vet applications in the months before the April launch date. This will ensure that in the immediate post-Brexit period there is a stock of workers for the industry to draw on.

Agriculture production cycles are not easily turned on and off. If horticultural crops are to be planted, farmers need to know they will be able to harvest them. This pilot scheme may be a crucial factor in farmers’ decision making in Scotland. As one of the respondents to SRUC’s survey explained:

No seasonal labour …no business! It’s that simple”.

Steven Thomson, Senior Agricultural Economist, SRUC and SEFARI