A two-year pilot which will allow UK farmers to employ seasonal workers from outside the EU has been announced by the Home Secretary and Defra Secretary.
The scheme, set to begin in spring 2019, will allow fruit and vegetable growers to hire non-EU workers for up to six months before they must return home.
2,500 workers will be able to come to the UK in each year of the scheme, though the NFU estimates 80,000 people are needed annually to harvest British crops.
The announcement follows months of heavy pressure from industry bodies, which have consistently highlighted businesses’ inability to recruit enough workers from the EU.
No plans to help the food and farming industry recruit permanent workers have been set out.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove said: “We have listened to the powerful arguments from farmers about the need for seasonal labour to keep the horticulture industry productive and profitable.
“From lettuce in East Anglia to strawberries in Scotland, we want to make sure that farmers can continue to grow, sell and export more great British food.
“This two-year pilot will ease the workforce pressures faced by farmers during busy times of the year. We will review the pilot’s results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU.”
The pilot will be run by two scheme operators, who will oversee the placement of workers.
Eligible applicants must be at least 18 years old and from outside the EU.
NFU president Minette Batters has described the announcement as a ‘major victory’ for the union, which has campaigned for several years for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme replacement.
“Farmers and growers have seen worker availability tighten significantly in recent years, with the shortfall to July this year reaching 10 per cent,” she added.
“Growers will take great confidence in knowing the Government is listening during what have been extremely testing and uncertain times for the sector.
“We look forward to working with Defra and the Home Office on examining and developing the details of the scheme.”
But NFU Scotland, while welcoming the move as a ‘step in the right direction’, pointed out 2,500 workers a year was not enough.
The union’s horticultural chairman, James Porter, said: “The principle that concerns over a seasonal workforce must be addressed has been accepted, but the figure of 2500 permits, given that it is on a UK-wide basis, is significantly short of what is likely to be needed to make a difference to the labour needs of the sector.
“NFUS will be writing to the Home Office, Defra and the Scotland Office this week to seek further information on the scheme and when it will be put into operation.”