A new ‘Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme’ is needed after Brexit to address the shortage of seasonal workers in the soft fruit industry in Norfolk, Norman Lamb argued in Parliament today.
The agriculture sector in the UK has long been reliant on migrant labour, particularly seasonal workers from Europe. During peak seasons, are around 75,000 additional workers are employed to pick British fruit and veg, of which an estimated 98% are recruited from elsewhere in the EU.
However, many farms and fruit companies are experiencing difficulty in recruiting enough seasonal EU workers. In North Norfolk, one of Britain’s major soft fruit producers was 77 fruit pickers short of the 320 needed in June of this year (a shortage of 25%), having struggled to obtain any seasonal harvest staff to fill these places – even from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria from which many fruit pickers have historically been recruited. As a result, some fields of fruit were left unpicked. The company has also been forced to halt its expansion plans while concerns about labour shortages continue.
Brexit has been suggested as one of the reasons why it is becoming harder to attract workers from the EU. There is huge concern that ongoing uncertainty over the future of EU migrant workers in Britain, as well as a fall in the value of the pound, is making Britain a less attractive destination. Farmers and fruit producers fear that labour shortages will be made much worse once EU free movement no longer applies in the UK after Brexit.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme previously allowed fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to do short-term, low-skilled agricultural work for a maximum of six months. It was closed in 2013 after Bulgaria and Romania became full members of the European Union and restrictions on the free movement rights of their citizens were lifted. However, there have been calls from the industry for a new version of the scheme to be reintroduced post-Brexit in order to avoid a sudden recruitment crisis upon the UK’s exit from the EU.
In Parliament, Norman Lamb supported calls for a new ‘Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme’ after Brexit to ensure that the industry has enough seasonal workers to pick British fruit and veg. Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate, he said:
“The soft fruit industry in this country is a big success story. However, one of the major producers in my constituency is 77 staff short at the moment. That means leaving fruit unpicked.
“The company in my constituency has halted expansion plans until something can be sorted out with regard to availability of labour. It cannot expand its business in the current situation.
“There is a real risk that this major success story could be undermined unless we get a good new seasonal agricultural workers scheme deal in place for the post-Brexit situation.”
Commenting after the debate, he said:
“I am really alarmed that there seems to be no strategy from the Government to address concerns about a shortage of labour in the agriculture sector. This is causing huge anxiety among fruit producers in my constituency. Fruit and veg crops are being left unharvested, and expansion plans are on hold because of the current situation.
“We cannot let existing recruitment problems become a crisis after Brexit. Four years ago, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was no longer considered necessary because countries who were traditionally part of this scheme, such as Bulgaria and Romania, had become part of the EU and were able to enjoy free movement. The Government must recognise that the situation has now changed dramatically with Brexit and the likely end of free movement over the next few years.
“We are still no clearer on what the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy will be, but I would strongly urge ministers to reintroduce the scheme in order to ensure that there are enough migrant workers to meet the needs of our essential soft fruit industry.”
You can read the full debate here.