The importance of securing access to labour in 2021

Ali Capper_43617

NFU horticulture and potatoes chairman Ali Capper sets out the latest situation on seasonal labour post Brexit and the need for growers to be prepared. She writes:

It felt like not a week would go by when I wasn’t talking about the seasonal labour situation in the horticulture sector and the need for a full scheme to be implemented in time for when freedom of movement ends. In fact, we were at a pivotal moment in March when we were pushing for an urgent commitment – and then coronavirus hit.

The impact from the pandemic has been significant; our attention immediately turned to the need to secure this year’s labour when faced with travel restrictions and quarantine rules. We were successful in securing key worker status for farm businesses and an exemption from the quarantine rules for seasonal workers. We also worked alongside Defra and a range of stakeholders to create and promote the Pick For Britain campaign, which raised awareness of seasonal roles in the UK and resulted in a large number of British workers on farm. And we worked with stakeholders to secure Public Health England guidance for farms that have large numbers of workers, to mitigate the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak and deal with it swiftly should the worst happen.

But while this was all going on, our focus on 2021 did not diminish. We have been working closely with Defra and the Home Office to make the case for a fully operational seasonal workers scheme for 2021 and beyond. We have also continued to provide evidence of labour needs, shortages, and feedback on the Seasonal Worker pilot scheme, which has operated for the past two years and has demonstrated that a full scheme could operate successfully.

The case for a seasonal worker scheme is now with government ministers to decide, and we have pressed upon them the need for a decision as soon as possible so that businesses can plan effectively for 2021 with a degree of confidence.

Growers should also make every effort to mitigate against potential labour shortages next year by encouraging workers to apply for the settled status scheme, which would enable them to return at least for the next five years. In addition, we must learn from the Pick for Britain campaign this year to promote our roles domestically and be very clear on what the jobs entail so that we receive applications from those workers that are genuinely committed.

It is very difficult to predict what next year will look like: how many permits a new seasonal worker scheme will provide; how many workers with settled status choose to return to our farms; whether the appetite from domestic workers strengthens or wanes; whether coronavirus will continue to create disruption for travel and visa applications. Against this backdrop, it is likely that whatever ministers decide for the seasonal worker scheme, we will have to work very hard to ensure we do not fall short of what we need. And that is why a decision on the seasonal worker scheme is needed urgently, so that we have as much opportunity as possible to make our preparations, assess the risks and manage them as best we can.

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