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UK farming's reliance on migrant labour must not be ignored

Migration was a key theme running throughout the Brexit campaign and is proving to be a sticking point as a new UK deal is finalised. Ewan Pate reports on why it matters to UK farming. 


Meat inspections


Brexit poses a ‘clear risk’ to the future availability of EU nationals for meat inspection work, according to Geoff Ogle, chief executive of Food Standards Scotland (FSS).


His concerns were, he said, tempered by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assurances the rights of EU workers would be respected in Scotland, but with at least 75 per cent and possibly as many as 90 per cent of Official Veterinarians (OVs) in Scotland’s meat processing plant hailing from the EU there is obvious vulnerability.


Most of the 45 to 50 OVs at work in Scottish meat plants come from Spain, Portugal and Eastern Europe and they have a responsibility to carry out ante-mortem inspections of stock. In larger abattoirs they also have a management role over the meat inspectors who carry out post-mortem work.


Mr Ogle said: "Evidence shows UK vets are not particularly keen on this sort of work."


The point is reinforced by figures from the Food Standards Agency (FSA).


It employs 44 vets directly with 98 per cent coming from the EU.


Migrant labour in the dairy sector


The dairy farming industry is almost as reliant on migrant labour as the fruit and vegetable sector.


Many larger units are only able to operate because they employ teams of dairy parlour staff from Eastern Europe.


In many cases these teams take on responsibility for the whole of the milking operation and organise their own rotas and holiday schedules.


No Government statistics are available as to numbers employed but the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) surveyed its members in 2014.


It found migrant workers were making a significant contribution to the dairy sector, with 32 per cent of producers having employed foreign labour with the majority (93 per cent) agreeing they had been a very successful option.




Of the 250 producer respondents, 52 per cent had more than 200 cows and 40 per cent had previously encountered difficulty in finding quality, skilled workers within the UK workforce.


In total 57 per cent of migrant employees came from Poland, with a significant number from the Baltic States, particularly Latvia along with a range of non-EU countries including the Philippines and New Zealand


Very few of the respondents regarded their migrant workers as transient or temporary.


“If the Central and Eastern Europeans went back to their native countries then dairy farming would be in dire straits as so many producers are now dependent on this migrant labour force,” said RABDF policy director Tim Brigstocke.

Possible solutions for the farming sector


There is next to no clarity so far as to how, or even if, agricultural seasonal migrant workers will be allowed into a post-Brexit UK.


Industry leaders will almost certainly call for a re-introduction of SAWS.


Until it was disbanded by Government in 2013 it set a quota of workers, mostly bona fide students, to come to the UK for the season and allowed licenced agencies to allocate the visitors to farms throughout the UK.


Once the season was over the agencies, including HOPS which is still operational and is wholly owned by the National Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs, were responsible for making sure the students returned to their home country. SAWS was deemed surplus to requirements once most of the relevant countries, the last being Bulgaria and Romania, had joined the EU and their citizens had acquired the freedom of movement within the EU.


The reintroduction of SAWS would be helpful to the farming sector but would a Brexit-focused Government be prepared to consider any measure which would swell migration numbers?




John Hardman, a director of HOPS Labour Solutions, has his doubts. In an open letter he said:


“HOPS is already experiencing difficulties in recruiting the calibre of staff we did when SAWS was in operation.


The young, articulate, efficient, English speaking workers have already migrated to other industries such as hospitality and catering.


“We have some considerable challenges to meet in two or three seasons’ time,” he said.


“Where is our workforce going to come from?


“I can tell you, it is not from the domestic unemployed.


“The elephant in the room when having discussions with the Department of Work and Pensions is that lazy people will remain lazy people and, more so, having 1,000 unemployed in Hull (where unemployment is more than 8 per cent) that would be willing to work and earn good money cannot realistically commute to a farm in Kent or Cornwall.


“It is vital as an industry we unite and lobby for a new scheme as soon as possible, but I suspect our industry is well down on the to do list, and we may only just start to move up that list when we cannot pick all of the strawberries for Wimbledon or Brussel sprouts for Christmas.”





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The lawyer’s advice

Employers of migrant workers should be acting now to reassure their employees and to help them prepare for Brexit.


Huw Cooke, senior associate with UK law firm Burges Salmon has special responsibility for food and farming.


He sadi: “The staus quo will apply in the short-term and for two years after Article 50 is triggered, so there is time for business planning.

One option for staff originating from within the European Economic Area [EEA] is to apply for a certificate of Permanent Residency.


“This is relatively easy to apply for and involves a £65 fee. The biggest problem is the lengthy wait. It was taking six months to process an application before Brexit.”




Naturalisation – essentially qualifying for a British passport – is a further step which can be taken. It may not suit everyone, however, because not all EEA countries allow dual nationality.


“As to the future for bringing in seasonal labour this is a matter of speculation,” added Mr Cooke.


“An obvious route would be to invoke the Tier 3 [lower skilled workers] points-based system.


“This applies at the moment to non-EEA nationals and after Brexit this might have to be extended. Of course this would have to be balanced against the stated drive to bring down net migration figures.”


He said another route would be a reintroduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) but it is impossible to say at the moment if this would happen.




The NFU view

British crops could be left unharvested without access to labour post-Brexit, according to NFU horticulture board chairman Ali Capper.


Speaking at the recent Fruit in Focus event at East Malling, Kent, she said the decision to leave the EU placed huge uncertainty over whether the industry would be able to access non-UK workers for picking, grading and packing British produce.


Surprisingly, the numbers of non-UK workers at work in the fruit and horticultural sectors is not recorded by Government but best estimates put it in the tens of thousands.


“Post-Brexit there is the likelihood there will be a more restrictive immigration process in place.


“Effectively this could end the free movement of labour from the EEA,” Mrs Capper said.


“We need to be prepared to explore all the possible options in maintaining access to horticulture’s vital labour supply. This could involve some form of visa-restricted access to labour.


“What is also clear is we are not just talking about access to seasonal labour – some sectors and businesses are currently reliant on non-UK workers in full-time roles, year-round.”




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