Immigration minister Robert Goodwill denied suggestions Brexit has had an impact on the UK’s ability to source foreign workers in a parliamentary debate on seasonal agricultural labour this week.
He said: “The most recent labour market statistics show the number of EU citizens in the UK labour force was higher in the quarter to September 2016 than it was a year earlier. Not only that, but the number of workers from the countries in eastern and central Europe which are most commonly associated with low-skilled labour are also up year on year.”
His comments came as the National Farmers’ Union released the results of a survey which showed around half of the companies providing labour to UK farms were unable to meet the demand for workers to pick late season crops between July and September this year.
NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper said: “Because of the devaluation of the pound, working here is worth less. People in Romania do not have to come here to pick apples for what is perceived as less money, they can do that in other EU countries.
“And the message since the vote to leave the EU is they are not welcome to come here.”
MPs contributing to the debate joined the NFU in calling for a new permit scheme for seasonal agricultural workers and highlighted the need for permanent employees in other sectors such as pigs and poultry.
The dairy sector has also been raising concerns about access to labour, with Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) policy director Tim Brigstocke saying: “RABDF believes the threat to EU-labour is not only real to dairy farming, but throughout the supply chain from abattoir workers to food processors.”
But the minister refused to give any ground during the debate, saying he ‘needed to ensure decisions taken now do not pre-empt our future immigration arrangements’.
He also said seasonal workers should be a part of the wider immigration debate because they ‘have an impact on the communities they live in’ and use public services.
Charles Baughan, managing director of Devon based Westaway Sausages, predicted Brexit would have a major impact on migrant labour before the vote.
He said: “There is a big issue because the money they are sending home has been devalued – they have effectively been given a 10 per cent pay cut.
“We as employers must respect that and appreciate and value the people who work for us.
“It comes as a wakeup call to think about how we look after staff, not just in terms of pay but with regards to the whole support package.”