Options for farmers to secure migrant labour from 2021

The government’s proposed points-based immigration system (PBS) looks like it could do little to help the agricultural and horticultural sectors, according to the most recent details.

Due to take effect from 1 January 2021, the PBS will require workers coming from overseas to earn at least 70 points from a list of criteria.

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What are the limitations of the new scheme?

There are three mandatory requirements, which are:

  • to be sponsored by a specific employer (worth 20 points)
  • the job they are to be offered will need to be at a skill level equivalent to A-level (worth 20 points)
  • and workers will need to be able to speak English to a required level (worth 10 points).

To gain the additional points required, the job must generally meet the salary threshold minimum of £25,600 (20 points)

It will be possible to earn less than this – but no less than £20,480 – by securing “tradeable” points, but only if the job is listed as a shortage occupation (20 points) or, for certain roles (although none of these are in agriculture or horticulture), if you have a relevant PhD (10-20 points).

There is currently no pathway through the PBS for entry-level roles.

Similarly, no agricultural or horticultural roles currently feature on the list of shortage occupations, although the NFU is lobbying hard for them to be added.

The government is also saying that workers must be able to prove they can speak English at the equivalent of AS-level or pass a test to show this.

This requirement is likely to represent another significant barrier for migrant workers coming from non-English speaking countries.

“An accumulation of factors does mean the scheme as it stands is not well-suited to the needs of the agriculture and horticulture industries,” explains Rachel Chambers, NFU policy adviser on skills and employment. 

“The costs associated with applying to the PBS are also likely to be offputting, with fees running to hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Workers will also need to demonstrate they have enough funds to support themselves while in the UK.

“Meanwhile, employers are looking at a sponsor licence fees currently ranging from £536 to £1,476 and an immigration skills charge of £1,000/year.”

What about the Seasonal Workers Scheme?

The industry is still waiting to hear if the Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme (SWPS), which this year expanded from 2,500 to 10,000 permits, will become permanent, says Alice Williams, a solicitor in the employment and immigration team at Capital Law.

The hope is that the SWPS will be rolled out permanently, with an extension to cover EU citizens, but the government may need to make it easier and cheaper to use, she says.

“The seasonal worker visa will not be particularly attractive for EU citizens, who previously have been able to move freely.

“Under the pilot, it costs £244 to apply, they can only stay for six months and they have to prove they have £945 in their bank account for the previous 90 days before they apply or obtain their sponsor’s agreement for maintenance for the first month in the UK.”

Is the Youth Mobility Scheme a potential solution?

The Youth Mobility Scheme currently offers those aged 18-30 from Australia, Canada, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea and Taiwan the right to live and work in the UK for up to two years.

The NFU is pushing for the scheme to be expanded to cover EEA countries.

However, migrants looking to enter by this route must have at least £1,890 in savings and pay a visa application fee of £244, plus an immigration health surcharge, which currently costs £600, if staying the full two years.

What other options are open to employers?

Ms Williams and Ms Chambers are both advising farmers to encourage any EU workers they are keen to see return to look at whether they could apply under the EU Settlement Scheme.

EU citizens are eligible to apply for pre-settled status if they have lived in the UK for as little as one day before 31 December 2020.

Having pre-settled status gives EU citizens the right to live and work in the UK for the next five years, but they are not required to stay in the UK full-time.

See also: How to help EU staff achieve settled status to work in UK

Rule reminder: How to help EU staff achieve settled status in the UK

To continue to live and work in the UK beyond 30 June 2021, EU workers must have lived in the UK before 31 December 2020 and successfully applied to the EU settlement scheme.

The deadline for applications, which are free but can only be made and managed on the government website, is 30 June 2021.

A successful application means either settled or pre-settled status has been granted.

This will allow EU citizens to:

  • Work in the UK
  • Use the NHS
  • Enrol in education or continue studying
  • Access public funds such as benefits and pensions
  • Travel in and out of the UK

Settled status
Under settled status, applicants can remain in the UK permanently.

Settled status may be granted to someone who will have been living in the UK continuously for the five years to 31 December 2020.

Continuous means at least six months in any 12-month period for each of the five years.

Settled status applicants will need to provide a passport, national identity card or National Insurance number.

Pre-settled status
Pre-settled status is more likely if an applicant has less than five years’ continuous residence.

This allows the applicant to stay in the UK for a further five years from the date pre-settled status is achieved.

For pre-settled status, EU citizens only need to have lived in the UK for one day in the six months to 31 December 2020. A payslip or utility bill showing their address is satisfactory.

Once five years of continuous residence has been achieved, a worker can then apply for settled status.