Defra Secretary George Eustice has said growers should look to hire hospitality workers who are set to lose their jobs during the pandemic to fill labour shortages.
Mr Eustice claimed the horticulture sector had become completely dependent upon migrant workers over the past 15 years because the UK has had record levels of people in work, but warned that situation was changing rapidly due to coronavirus restrictions.
In March 2019, the Government opened a pilot seasonal workers scheme to allow growers to hire non-EU workers for up to six months, and in 2020, after loud warnings about ongoing labour shortages, the number of people permitted to join the scheme was increased from 2,500 to 10,000.
Speaking during an NFU fringe event at the online Conservative Party conference this week (September 5), Mr Eustice explained he was in discussions with the Home Office about what to replace the pilot scheme with when it comes to an end.
“We have to see it in the context of the coronavirus situation and the economic fallout from that,” he said.
“We are likely to see some sharp rises in unemployment over the next 12 months. Some projections suggest unemployment might be as high as 2 million.
“Some of that will be in the hospitality sector, where some Polish and Lithuanians maybe worked on the fields ten years ago, and we need to have some regard for that in terms of what kind of scheme we put in place. But I am also conscious that a lot of these people do not live in the right areas.
“My instinct is we need a balanced approach where we challenge growers to try to make use of local labour, with people who are used to hard graft working as kitchen porters and so on.
“But I recognise that will need to be supplemented with some seasonal workers as well. We are trying to get that balance right.”
NFU president Minette Batters also pointed out that retailers, for the first time, were beginning to lobby Government about the need for seasonal workers.
Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are already planning a letter to Ministers in the Home Office.