As detailed in a previous blog from 6 September, the UK Government have announced a pilot scheme to allow migrants to work on UK farms.
On 18 September, just weeks after the announcement, The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published their Final Report on EEA Workers in the UK Labour Market. The MAC report included conclusions such as:
“We do not recommend an explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers schemes. This is likely to be strongly opposed by the affected sectors.”
During the summer of 2017, Scotland’s Rural College was commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake a research project, with a view to understanding the labour market in Scottish agriculture. The final report was published in March 2018. Amongst many topics, the seasonal worker pilot scheme was discussed:
Both the EU and the UK Government’s plans are for a continuation of EU seasonal worker rights during the proposed transition period until the end of 2020. However, there is no clarity on access rights in the event of a no deal or beyond the transition period.
It is estimated that between 70,000 to 80,000 migrant workers are engaged in UK agriculture. SRUC’s study estimates around 9,250 seasonal migrant workers were being used on Scottish farms in 2017. It is widely reported that there is a worker shortfall of 10%-20% in 2018 resulting in unharvested crops and lost business revenue. In this light, it is hard to see how 2,500 additional workers will alleviate the ongoing recruitment problem. Indeed, in Scotland the 15% to 20% shortfall experienced in 2017/2018 means that Scottish businesses alone could use the lion’s share of the pilot quota.
Given the uncertainties over migration policy (especially with the EU) and exchange rates post-Brexit, the UK Government is likely to need flexibility to rapidly increase the visa quota in response to industry need. However, even with flexibility, there will likely be lags in the system between identifying worker shortages, the policy response, and the recruitment and placement of workers.
It is unclear how the scheme will ensure that the finite quota of workers are effectively placed across all sectors and places in need. How businesses are prioritised for worker allocation is likely to be contentious.
A proportion of the seasonal workforce are highly mobile. Many workers move between farms because of relative ripe fruit abundance, pay rates, presence of friends and family etc. Given that some businesses may only need scheme workers for short periods (e.g. three months during peak harvest periods), it is unclear whether the scheme will allow workers to be relocated, provided their total stay is less than six months.
In such instances, it could lead to the scheme underperforming in terms of business needs and expectations. For example, if the 2,500 workers work six days per week for six months, the scheme would provide 360,000 work days. However, if the average length of stay is only four months then the number of workdays provided by the scheme would fall by a third.
Returnees are the bedrock of many soft fruit businesses and a proportion of the existing workforce remain working on farms for up to ten months per year. It is unclear how the pilot scheme could support farms that need continuity of key workers over a prolonged period. Further, if the scheme prefers new candidates each season (as the previous Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme did), the added value of retaining staff across seasons will be lost. This may mean greater costs and lost productivity to both the business and the individual worker, through the need for new workers to undergo training and familiarisation.
The UK Government has stated that there will be two scheme operators. Will they be responsibility for ensuring workers leave the UK after their placement ends? How that will be governed in practice remains unclear.
Given the extended growing season and existing recruitment challenges, scheme operators will need to advertise, locate and vet applications in the months before the April launch date. This will ensure that in the immediate post-Brexit period there is a stock of workers for the industry to draw on.
The report makes clear that agriculture production is cyclical, and therefore time sensitive. This can make production vulnerable to problems. In the near future, it is probable that this scheme will be revised and possibly expanded if the Home Secretary is to maintain his claim to “ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year.
Presently, the UK Government position on future immigration policy remains unclear. It looks likely despite the MAC findings, that if shortages become crucial after March 2019, fragmentary Sector-Based Schemes for low-skilled labour may become more commonplace.
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