Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis has confirmed free movement of people will end when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. Abi Kay investigates the impact this will have on the farming industry.
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) has carried out two labour surveys since 2014 and found a growing reliance on overseas labour, with a 24 per cent increase in the number of dairy farmers employing non-UK workers in just two years.
Matthew Knight, RABDF managing director, said: “The RABDF surveys show growing concern over whether farmers will be able to access overseas labour in future.
“We would like the Government to consider the specific needs of dairy farmers – permanent, semi-skilled and skilled workers – and the inability and unwillingness of the current UK workforce to meet this need in migration targets.”
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has raised concerns about Brexit’s impact on access to labour and pointed out automation would not fill all the gaps.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the BMPA, said: “Changes in the domestic and export marketplace require more processing of carcases and production of meat products on site.
“Meat processing is not seasonal work, so we need a year-round supply of staff. It is difficult to recruit local workers and any increase in wages would have an impact on meat prices for the consumer and/or prices paid to farmers.
“Any new migration system must be flexible, simple and inexpensive for the employer and employee.”
The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) told Farmers Guardian the industry’s ability to produce food would be undermined by a lack of access to EU labour, pointing out the drop in the value of sterling had already made the UK less attractive to overseas workers.
Some 80 per cent of the industry’s entry-level positions in direct production and warehousing are filled by non-UK born workers – roles which would remain empty if the Government introduced a points-based system which required qualifications or proven experience.
A spokesman said: “Our industry operates year-round and we need reliable, permanent workers, able to fill the jobs we have available, in both the farming and processing arenas.
“Any schemes established to ensure the future supply of migrant labour must also facilitate the ability of full-time workers to live in the UK.”
Since the EU referendum, two in five vets have said they are likely to leave the UK, with 18 per cent actively looking for work elsewhere.
British Veterinary Association (BVA) president Gudrun Ravetz said: “Each year, around 50 per cent of vets registering to practice in the UK come from overseas, the vast majority from EU countries, and in our abattoirs almost 95 per cent of Official Veterinarians come from overseas.
“From day one, the BVA has been calling on the Government to guarantee working rights for EU vets and vet nurses currently working and studying in the UK.”
The British Poultry Council (BPC) has pointed out poultry producers are investing in automation to increase efficiency, but people remain the lifeblood of the industry.
A BPC spokesman said: “The industry cannot survive without access to people with the right skills. Finding sufficient UK labour is becoming a massive challenge as the uncertainties around Brexit are prompting many of our workers to seek jobs in other countries.
“It is incredibly important we have access to migrant labour through a simplified work visa system.”
The National Pig Association (NPA) has claimed the industry’s ability to produce food would be undermined without access to EU labour.
NPA senior policy advisor Georgina Crayford said: “We want a much greater Government emphasis on permanent labour and also a recognition that workers in the pig sector currently labelled ‘unskilled’ are in fact often very skilled workers who make an important contribution to the economy.
“We would like to see tier 3 of the 5-tier points-based system for immigration reinstated for non-EU nationals. This would allow so-called low-skilled workers filling specific temporary labour shortages to come in as a short-term solution.”
The British Growers’ Association (BGA) has illustrated the scale of need in the horticulture sector, where 80-85,000 seasonal workers a year are required, as well as people to fill permanent roles in some areas such as mushroom harvesting, which is done 52 weeks of the year.
Chief executive Jack Ward said: “This is a hugely important issue for the sector. There are very few people looking for jobs in the areas needed.
“We need a scheme which allows people to come to the UK to carry out seasonal labour, but one which reflects 2017 realities. The Government must not delay in introducing one.”