On 6 September 2018, the Home Secretary and Environment Secretary announced a new pilot scheme, which will run from next spring until December 2020, enabling non-EU workers to work on UK fruit and vegetable farms for six months. The initiative is a direct replacement for the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) which was closed at the end of 2013. Under SAWS 21,250 workers per year were able to travel to the UK for up to six months to work in fruit and vegetable picking.
Under the pilot 2,500 workers from outside the EU will be able to enter the UK annually in aims to reduce labour shortages during seasonal peak agricultural periods. The current labour shortage stems from not only a decline in the number of workers from the EU, but also from other EU countries such as Germany making increasing efforts to attract seasonal workers. In addition as the pound has also declined in value, the amount paid to workers when converted into foreign currency is now worth less to workers.
Although the two-year pilot aims to lighten the workload faced by farmers post Brexit, farmers' associations claim the new scheme will barely cover the needs of British fruit and vegetable growers. According to British Summer Fruits, farms are already experiencing labour shortages. Especially during a seasonal peak period, it could be the case where crops are left to rot in fields with such a decrease in labour thereby significantly impacting the industry and the economy.
Although a new pilot scheme aims to address non-EU seasonal agricultural workers post Brexit, EU nationals also make up a large proportion of the food manufacturing (33 per cent) accommodation (19 per cent), warehousing and support for transport (18 per cent) and construction activities (11 per cent) sectors. With Brexit, and the end of free movement fast approaching, these industries and others will be asking whether there will be similar visa schemes available to them.
For example, 10 per cent of all workers in the postal and courier activities sector are made up of EU nationals. However, when looking just at the peak Christmas season, the percentage of EU workers is much higher. Employers in this industry have been able to rely on EU labour during the peak Christmas period, where they have not been able to source workers from the resident labour market. While people may forgive the late delivery of last minute Christmas shopping, the late delivery of official correspondence, for example notice of medical appointments during this time will be more difficult to manage.
A short-term visa to manage seasonal fluctuations in labour market requirements is a positive step for agriculture and farming. However, there are many more industries that will struggle to fill vacancies when free movement ends, and I'm sure they will be keeping a close eye on this pilot, and developments coming out of the Home Office.