The government minister responsible for immigration as the UK prepares to leave the European Union has promised to give “careful consideration” to the needs of agriculture in relation to seasonal workers.
However, he has denied there is any “mass exodus” following the referendum last June.
Responding to a Westminster debate, immigration minister Robert Goodwill said: “I understand the position of the farming community and I appreciate the importance of food and farming as a crucial component of the UK economy.
“But we need to find a balance between short-term fixes and the long-term sustainability of the sector.”
Mr Goodwill said he would give due consideration to calls for a replacement to the old Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), but this would have to fit in with the government’s wider post-Brexit migration policy.
He noted that, even though seasonal workers did not officially count as migrants since they were not in the UK for more than 12 months, they still affected local communities, used public services and took potential jobs from UK nationals.
Mr Goodwill conceded the SAWS had worked well in the past. But he disputed claims there was already a labour shortage after the EU referendum, with the Office of National Statistics showing a year-on-year increase in EU workers in the UK in the three months to September.
“This does not suggest there is a major exodus from the UK, though I will continue to monitor the situation carefully.”
Mr Goodwill was responding to a debate led by Faversham and Mid-Kent MP Helen Whately in which she highlighted the plight many fruit and vegetable growers are already facing in sourcing seasonal labour.
“Horticulture needs thousands of seasonal workers every year,” she said.
But it was getting harder and harder to find them. One Kent agency had reported a fourfold drop in the number of people looking for seasonal work compared with the same time last year.
The falling pound had meant wages were worth less when sent home to other EU countries, and workers were feeling less welcome, she added.
There was a real risk of fruit and vegetables going unpicked next years, and farmers would go out of business.
Ms Whately therefore called for the government to introduce a trial seasonal workers scheme as soon as possible – a view endorsed by most of the other speakers in the debate.
NFU survey on migrant labour
- Almost half of agencies supplying labour were unable to meet the horticulture sector’s demands in July-September, compared with just 13% in the previous quarter.
- The supply of labour for picking potatoes and brassicas only meets 67% of the sector’s needs, compared with 100% in the previous quarter.