Update for members on the NFU's work on labour availability

chris hartfield labour permit sceme quote and head shot, bbc coverage_39852

Availability of non-UK workers for horticultural businesses has been a priority issue for the NFU following the referendum. This is a summary of the work undertaken over the last six months, our achievements, and where we are currently.

  • Ahead of the referendum in June, the NFU horticulture and potatoes board identified access to labour as one of the key issues of concern for the industry. The NFU end of season labour survey for 2015, completed by 289 businesses employing 13,749 seasonal workers, showed clearly that, for the first time since the end of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2013, cracks were beginning to appear in the labour market – with nearly a third of growers experiencing problems securing an adequate supply of labour from the EU. The NFU used this pre-referendum evidence to support its call for a new seasonal workers scheme targeting workers from outside the EU.
  • Following the referendum, the horticulture and potatoes board quickly confirmed access to labour as one of its key Brexit policy priorities, and it also became a core Brexit principle and issue for the NFU as a whole. The board shared its thinking in discussion papers complementing the wider NFU Brexit consultation process that took place in August.
  • In July the NFU joined a horticultural industry roundtable to start shaping industry-wide action on the access to labour issue. We realised early on that we needed the whole of industry to work together on this issue – to pursue common goals that will benefit growers and the whole of the produce and plants supply chain.
  • Following the roundtable meeting, the British Growers Association conducted a survey that showed the horticultural industry currently relies on over 75,000 EU seasonal workers, and this was projected to increase to nearly 92,000 by 2021. It was also estimated that the industry relies on around 10,000 permanent non-UK workers.
  • In July the NFU wrote to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis MP, and the Minister of State for Immigration Robert Goodwill MP, raising our concerns about access to non-UK seasonal and permanent labour.
  • At the beginning of October, NFU Council set out its bold vision for growing and farming in its Brexit policy framework. The framework focusses on three main areas – trade, access to labour, and domestic agricultural policy. On access, the NFU’s key policy priorities are
    • Government to trial a substantial controlled fixed-term seasonal work permit scheme for agriculture and horticulture targeted at non-EU workers. The long term goal is to bring-in 90,000 workers to pick and pack fruit, veg, plants and flowers, and send them home again.
    • Assurance that EU workers already in the UK have right of residency and be able to leave to return to their home member state, and then return to work in the UK.
    • Government to commit to holding further discussions on permanent labour and seasonal labour for the medium to long term.
    • AHDB and Government to provide significant investment in innovation, productive technology, robotics, automation and mechanisation, and to support science funding for research and development.
    • In the longer term – working with schools, the National Land Based College and universities to promote and provide the relevant technical skills needed for the industry.
  • Throughout 2016, the NFU horticulture and potatoes team has been undertaking its Seasonal Labour Providers’ Survey, to provide monthly information of seasonal labour experiences direct from labour providers. The results show a dramatic deterioration in the ability to obtain and maintain EU labour in the horticulture sector. Following the referendum, the proportion of labour providers who were unable to meet the sector’s demand for labour increased by over 30% (from 13% in Q1 to 47% in Q3). Across the same period, recruitment in source countries became more difficult, the proportion of experienced returnees fell, and number of early leavers increased. This evidence emphasises the need for a substantial trial of a seasonal agricultural permit scheme for non-EU workers in the 2017.
  • Throughout the last six months, NFU county advisers across the country have been doing great work locally in working with members to make MPs aware of labour issue bearing down on growers in their constituencies.
  • The inaugural meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Fruit & Vegetable Farming was held at the end of October. The NFU has supported the APPG chair Helen Whately MP in establishing the group.
  • At the beginning of November, the NFU met with minister of state for immigration Robert Goodwill MP. The Minister already had a good understanding of the industry’s labour needs, but we discussed the growing evidence that the pool of EU workers was already drying-up pre-referendum, and since then difficulties sourcing EU workers have increased significantly. The NFU sought assurances that future labour will be accessible from both the EU and beyond.
  • At the end of November, the issue of access to seasonal labour received excellent coverage in the press and media following a Westminster Hall debate on the issue, led by Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately. The debate was prompted by NFU representations to the APPG Fruit & Vegetable Group chaired by Helen Whately. The debate saw MPs from across political parties heavily citing NFU briefing material and data (published recently in a Financial Times article), and saw cross-party support for the NFU’s call for Government to pilot a scheme to access seasonal workers in 2017. The immigration minister Robert Goodwill MP said he would reflect carefully on the points raised.
  • In the same week, it was reported that Cabinet ministers had told The Times that ‘government could revive the agricultural workers scheme after Brexit to allow low-skilled migrants to pick fruit in summer’.
  • The following week the Home Office fielded a parliamentary questions session on unskilled migration. Again, the NFU was cited and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP said ‘We are aware how necessary it will be to ensure that we have some sort of seasonal scheme in place, and we are looking carefully at it’.
  • At the beginning of December, NFU brought together for the first time the largest group of UK food and plant producers (75 organisations, with a turnover of more than £92 billion, employing almost a million people) to call on the Prime Minister and Government to enable access to EU and non-EU seasonal and permanent labour, and provide assurances that EU workers already working permanently in the UK are allowed to remain.
  • In mid-December, NFU deputy president Minette Batters gave evidence to the House of Lords EU select committee on ‘Brexit: UK-EU movement of people’, and asked the committee to support the NFU call for Government to pilot a seasonal work permit scheme for non-EU workers in 2017.

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