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Warning from EU President sparks concern for migrant roles in farming

Limitations to ’crucial’ migrant labour could be detrimental to the UK agricultural sector. 


Lauren   Dean

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Lauren   Dean
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Warning from EU president sparks concern for migrant roles in farming

Farming and rural leaders have reiterated concerns that any limitation of ‘crucial’ migrant labour could be detrimental to the UK agricultural sector.

 

It came as EU president Jean-Claude Juncker told an EU summit in Bratislava last week that Britain could not expect access to the single market without accepting free movement of people.

 

With the issue of migration being one of the most divisive among key decision makers and the British public, some believe the statement could delay the Prime Minister’s decision to formally break away from the European Union, adding to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.


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"Our sector is extremely reliant on competent reliable workers"

- NFU horticulture chairman Ali Capper

Theresa May had reportedly said Article 50 could be triggered in January or February, but this has not been confirmed by Downing Street.

 

Farm bosses have said access to both migrant labour and the single market will be vital for the industry going forward.

 

But a new report from AHDB has suggested a potential reduction in migrant labour post-Brexit could catalyse structural change in the agricultural and horticultural sectors.

 

NFU Scotland and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) have jointly called on the UK Government to provide assurances, adding any confusion concerning the status of the EU workforce could have a major impact on the UK farm sector.

 

'Ideal scenario'

Negotiations have started and NFU horticulture board chairman Alison Capper said she hoped to highlight the union’s preferences for a new feasible deal which would continue to allow at least 80,000 overseas workers access and the right to work in the UK.

 

Without this kind of policy, the UK farming sector could be badly damaged, she said.

 

“Our sector is extremely reliant on competent reliable workers who are happy to pick fruit and vegetables,” said Mrs Capper.

 

She said the ideal scenario was free trade with Europe and to be able, as a society, to listen to electorates and ‘create a long-term policy’ for EU migrants working in the UK.

 

“We are looking for flexibility from the Government for a scheme similar to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) that once had a 98 per cent return,” she added.

 

“We are asking for seasonal workers to have the ability to come from anywhere in the world on a visa scheme to pick, process and pack fruit and vegetables. We want to allow workers to come and work here but then go home again.”

 

Automation

The new Horizon report from AHDB said current reliance on labour from overseas in agricultural labour could be mitigated by an increase in productivity through innovation and skills development.

 

AHDB Head of Strategic Insight David Swales said: “If there are restrictions in the availability of labour, the costs of employing staff are likely to rise, meaning investment in more capital-intensive production systems such as automation may become a more attractive option for growers and producers.

 

“Much greater substitution of capital for labour may be a consequence of a reduced supply of labour.

 

"But in the current climate of uncertainty, businesses may need significant signals from Government to help stimulate them to invest the capital required to offset any loss of affordable labour."

 

Impact on the food industry

“The current work force is split between skilled operatives and casual manual labour. The latter being to a large extent currently east European labour employed to manually harvest and process crops with minimum terms of employment. Post-Brexit it is not yet clear that a pool of migrant labour will be available to subsidise agricultural production in the UK and growers may be forced to either invest in labour or technology to maintain production."

- Unite Food Drink and Agriculture Sector

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