The UK Government has been ‘glib’ in its response to the growing agricultural labour shortage, argues MEP Julie Girling, who sits on the EU’s Agriculture Committee.
Readers of Farmers Guardian will be acutely aware of the United Kingdom’s reliance on migrant labour in the agricultural sector.
Not just the oft-cited example of seasonal workers, but also the essential role skilled migrants play at every level of the agri-business model through production, supply and sale.
There is an increasingly perceptible unease around this critical issue, and not just from within the industry.
It illustrates the complexity of extraction from the EU and, perhaps, seems to be giving some ‘Leavers’ cause for concern.
Expediency and exaggeration from all sides throughout the referendum campaign has begun to give way to a stark reality: there are an estimated 80,000 temporary migrant workers in agriculture every summer, with 98 per cent of the horticulture workforce originating from the EU.
European citizens in the poultry meat industry make up 60 per cent of the workforce, with 63 per cent in red and white meat processing.
Approximately 40 per cent of staff on egg farms are EU migrants, the figure rising to 50 per cent – half – in egg packing centres. The ‘need’ for overseas workers by 2021 is estimated to be around 95,000.
Though I am sure faith remains high in the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have still seen very little detail of how the problem is going to be tackled.
The picture is unambiguous, and the potential consequences fundamental to the future prosperity of the UK.
Without migrant labour, production cannot be sustained and domestic demand can only be supplied through an ever-increasing trade deficit. The irony is of course that much of the shortfall in UK production would likely be supplied by EU producers.
There is a concerning passivity bordering on negligence in this situation.
As more mature readers will know, the United Kingdom of 1972 – the year of our accession to the EU – is almost unimaginable when compared to today.
The strides made in agricultural science and mechanisation have been matched by equally profound developments in complex supply chains, outsourcing of labour and the globalisation of markets.
The response to these existential problems are glib at best and naive at worst, with Ministers such as Chris Grayling quoted as saying we will simply ‘grow more food’ in response to a ‘no-deal Brexit’.
How is this feasible if the migrant workforce in the existing food production system is discouraged or unable to work in the UK?
Andrew McCornick, president of NFU Scotland President, has already noted concerning trends: “This year, there has been a shortage of between 10 and 20 percent of seasonal workers coming from the EU”.
Any assurances given by Ministers will ring hollow, particularly when injustices such as the recent Windrush debacle are plain to see.
To avert the worst Brexit consequences on migratory labour, the Government cannot simply revert to a post-war system and expect it to be sufficient.
The UK has been an attractive destination because of ease of entry, a previously competitive pound sterling, robust protective regulations and a stable agricultural industry.
Brexit, the transition period and future Government policies will have to start shaping up into a plan. UK agriculture needs and deserves some answers.