Retailers tell Efra MPs seasonal labour is ‘biggest issue’

Supermarket senior executives and suppliers are seeking clarity from the UK government over its future plans for farm labour, with the Seasonal Worker Scheme for horticulture due to end this year.

The Home Office committed to extend the Seasonal Worker visa route until the end of 2024, to allow at least 45,000 foreign workers to travel to the UK to live and work for up to six months this year.

But the Conservative government has made no firm commitment on the scheme beyond this date, although Farmers Weekly understands an announcement is expected very soon.

See also: Ditching of English horticulture strategy ‘beggars belief’

Cross-party MPs sitting on the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee were told this week of the importance of an efficient supply of labour to the horticultural sector, in which many businesses rely on seasonal labour.

As part of their ongoing inquiry into fairness in the food supply chain, MPs questioned senior executives from five supermarkets – Tesco, Aldi, Waitrose, Lidl and Sainsbury’s – during an hour-long session on Tuesday (30 April).

Seasonal Worker Scheme

Sainsbury’s food commercial director Rhian Bartlett said the availability of labour under the Seasonal Worker Scheme is the biggest topic of discussion among her suppliers.

“There’s a lot of call for that to be expanded, both in the numbers of people, but also the length of time and for agri-work to be added to the Shortage Occupation List so that there’s more access to more labour from around the world,” she told MPs.

Commenting on the hearing afterwards, Ali Capper, executive chairwoman of trade body British Apples and Pears, told Farmers Weekly the horticultural sector “is on a cliff-edge” regarding future access to labour.

The government must give growers confidence to invest in their businesses by announcing a multi-annual Seasonal Worker Scheme, including a commitment on numbers and, in some cases, extending the length of visas from six to nine months, she said.

Ms Capper was also pleased to hear supermarkets express preferences around price negotiations for longer-term contracts for British growers.   

“I hope that this does lead to the implementation of a fair dealing clause in the Agriculture Act,” she said.

“We need long-term contracts and contracts that have a pricing mechanism and that’s what this clause would give us in law.”

Grower surety

Nick Marston, chairman of British Berry Growers, said: “We would like see a five-year rolling contract to give growers surety in terms of direct labour when making investments in production.

“A nine-month visa also improves worker productivity and thus reduces costs, while allowing seasonal workers to earn larger cash sums over their stay.”

A Defra spokesman said: “We recently commissioned an independent review into tackling labour shortages and will shortly set out our response outlining our support for the sector’s labour needs, including our work on automation, domestic labour procurement, training, and Seasonal Worker visas.”

Retailers grilled on ‘fake farm’ brands and ‘shrinkflation’

Retailers faced questioning from Efra MPs over the use of “fake farm” names to market products and “shrinkflation” – the practice of reducing a product’s size while maintaining its retail price.

MPs raised concerns that the ongoing use of fake brands by retailers, including Tesco, undermines producers with real farms and dents consumer confidence.

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