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Brexit briefing: Would UK farms lose vital access to labour outside the EU?

In the latest of our series examining what leaving the EU could mean for UK farming, Alistair Driver examines the role Europe plays when it comes to access to labour and the options for sustaining it post-Brexit.

Many UK farmers are reliant on EU labour at peaks times and throughout the year
Many UK farmers are reliant on EU labour at peaks times and throughout the year

Guy Poskitt’s family business in Yorkshire grows and packs more than 150,000 tonnes of carrots per year and employs 250 people. Of these about 170 - two-thirds - are European.


“Most are permanent. We rely on immigrant labour all-year round," said Mr Poskitt, who is the NFU's horticulture chairman.


“It is as important an ingredient to horticulture as sprays and fertiliser. Without it we simply could not, as an industry, produce the volume of horticulture crops we do today.


“We cannot find the labour locally. It is just not there.”


It is not only the labour-intensive fruit and vegetable farms and packhouses which rely on immigrant workers.


It will be the same story for farms across other sectors, too, not to mention the abattoirs and processors further up the supply chain.


For many people connected to the industry, including Mr Poskitt, the EU referendum on June 23 poses an unknown risk to this industry-sustaining arrangement.


But are those fears justified?

The political context

UK farms enjoy largely unfettered access to this labour because the free movement of people is enshrined as one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU.


Driven largely by long-running concerns over migration, one of the key drivers underlying the campaign to leave the union is the desire to put an end this freedom.


Prime Minister David Cameron took some steps to appease these concerns over immigration in his renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU.


The flagship policy was a four-year ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits for workers coming to the UK for the first time, with a limit on child benefit sent back to other countries.


Leave campaigners said this did not go far enough.


Only outside the EU can we have a ‘fairer, more humane migration policy’, according to ‘Vote Leave’.


It said: “We stop the current immoral, expensive, and out of control immigration system that means an open door to the EU while blocking people who could contribute to the UK coming from non-EU countries."


But what could this mean for an industry utterly dependent on migrant labour?

How important is migrant labour to farmers and growers?

  • In the first quarter of 2015, 1.9 million people from other EU countries were employed in the UK labour market, with a net inflow into the UK of 268,000 workers - an increasing trend.
  • National Official of Statistics figures showed there were 34,513 non UK-born workers employed in farming in 2014. Of these nearly two-thirds were born in the EU.
  • But this figure did not cover the many seasonal workers employed by UK farmers.
  • The final Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2012 saw 21,000 Bulgarian and Romanian workers employed by fruit and vegetable growers for up to six months at a time.


While it is not as simple as adding the two figures together, they give ‘an indication of the vital importance on non UK-born labour to the agriculture sector, the NFU said.


What would Brexit mean?

Those campaigning to leave the EU insist they understand the importance to farmers and growers of migrant labour and would take steps to ensure the supply continues.


Farming Minister George Eustice said, having spent a decade working in the soft fruit industry, he ‘knew more about seasonal farm labour than most’.


He said his own family farm employed ‘about 300 people from 15 nationalities at the peak of harvest, and was nicknamed the United Nations locally’.


He said: "We had many students on temporary working travel visas from Commonwealth countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia as well as EU citizens.”


“If we voted to leave and took control we could develop an immigration policy which delivered for the UK with special, tailored provisions for industries such as agriculture which have a unique seasonal nature.”


This, he added, could take the form of ‘generous work permit provisions to allow people from other countries, including the EU, to come here to work’.


He said the UK could explore options such as temporary student visas specific to agriculture from some other countries.


A new scheme along these lines could borrow some of the features behind the SAWS scheme, which enable growers to employ students from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months at a time but closed in 2012 when those two countries joined the EU.


“This could help when it comes to staff retention,” Mr Eustice said.


“One of the concerns some horticultural businesses have is they invest time and money recruiting seasonal staff from EU countries only to find, once they get here, they drift away from farm work to other industries.”


The UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) post-Brexit policy on immigration includes a five-year moratorium on immigration for unskilled workers alongside the introduction of an ‘Australian-style points-based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country’.


UKIP MEP and agriculture spokesman Stuart Agnew said: “No worker who has arrived legally in the UK will be asked to leave.


“A work permit system for prospective seasonal workers could be put in place with responsibility for recruitment, accommodation, conduct, health insurance and return placed on the employer.


“Or, for permanent staff, an Australian-style points system."

Brexit risk


But former Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon, a leading farming voice for the ‘In’ campaign, insisted there could be no guarantees such arrangements would be put in place post-Brexit.


He said: “It is an unnecessary risk. If we chose to leave the EU we would need to renegotiate some sort of access to markets, which would include the terms for allowing labour into the UK.


“Right now we have no idea what this would be. The leave campaigners can say everything will be exactly the same until they are blue in the face, but it will not be them who make the decision.


“It will be the other 27 member states who are left behind to decide and negotiate what kind of deal the UK would then enjoy with the rest of the EU.


“Currently we have the best deal we could possibly hope for. Why would you put all this at risk by leaving and the trying to renegotiate it all back open again?”

Industry concerns

UK farm industry representatives also remain unconvinced about assurances over labour, insisting there must be measures in place to secure access.


CLA president Ross Murray said: “Workers from the EU play a vital role in the rural economy. If the UK votes to leave, there must be a plan in place which gives agriculture access to the labour it needs.”


NFU president Meurig Raymond warned the UK horticulture sector – already under pressure from retail price wars, fierce import competition and the National Living Wage – would be ‘decimated’ if it lost access to this labour.


“A lot of poultry, dairy and livestock farms are also totally dependent on EU labour, as is the processing sector,” he said.


“We would make a strong case for a return to a seasonal labour scheme which worked so well for the industry.


“But at the moment you cannot get any promises or commitments from anyone. It is very much an unknown and we will need some answers.”


Mr Poskitt said: “The out campaign argues it would be easy to get the labour. I would argue it may be the same, it may be harder but it certainly will not be easier.”


“If we came out we would have to lobby very, very hard to reintroduce SAWS because without labour, in or out, we have no industry."


“George Eustice said at the NFU conference they would be looking for some sort of support and they understand the need for migrant labour in horticulture. .


“The problem with the out campaign is nobody knows what out looks like."

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