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Opinion - Sarah Beer, agricultural lawyer, Wright Hassall

The suggestion by Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill a new seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme (SAWS) could be introduced post-Brexit has been greeted with cautious optimism by the sector.

The suggestion by Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill a new seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme (SAWS) could be introduced post-Brexit has been greeted with cautious optimism by the sector.

 

The wheel has come full circle – SAWS was scaled back and then terminated in 2013 as the Government assumed a ready supply of transient agricultural labour from the ‘new’ post-2004 EU countries removed the need for it.

 

Since then the supply has begun to dry up. Brexit has sharpened concerns over the long-term impact of labour shortages on Britain’s harvests.

 

To alleviate the immediate shortage, particularly in horticulture, the NFU has been pushing for a trial introduction of a new SAWS-like permit scheme.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, terminating SAWS looks like an act of self-harm. The quota system limited numbers, was designed for agricultural students who returned to their country of origin after a six-month period and ensured they were accommodated by their employer, thus reducing the impact on local communities.

 

Unless a similar scheme is reintroduced, any temporary migration scheme to make up the labour shortfall will inevitably run into trouble, as most have historically.

 

Without safeguards imposed by a regulated, quota system, there is little to stop temporary workers from becoming permanent.

 

Mr Goodwill’s comments appear to be in line with Theresa May’s unexpected announcement last autumn work permit-type schemes, rather than points-based ones, could be applied to particular regions and sectors. Indeed, this proposal was referred to by Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom who, addressing January’s Oxford Farming Conference, acknowledged the importance of European Economic Area (EEA) seasonal labour to the agricultural sector and indicated the Government may look favourably on schemes enabling farmers to recruit from the EEA post-Brexit.

 

Nonetheless, ending free movement of workers between Britain and the EEA has repeatedly been seen as a ‘red line’ for Government.

 

Without a SAWS-type scheme, the effect on businesses reliant on European seasonal workers could be catastrophic. Some farmers are already facing a 10 per cent shortfall in labour this year and there is a real risk some of the fruit and vegetable crops ready for harvest this year may simply rot in fields.

 

This is likely to lead to price rises and greater reliance on imports, which is not ideal as demonstrated by the recent supply problems caused by adverse weather in southern Spain.

 

Much discussion, debate and analysis is required on any proposed scheme, particularly as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling on January 24 – the terms of new arrangements will be scrutinised at Parliamentary level.

 

The likelihood British workers can fill a recruitment black hole is slim. Few want seasonal work in an industry requiring long hours and hard work on the minimum wage. The sooner a framework is drafted for a new seasonal worker scheme, the better.

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