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There are 471,000 people in the UK’s agricultural workforce. A significant proportion of this – at least 58,000 – is seasonal or casual labour. Farmers rely on workers coming from abroad to fill these seasonal roles.

UK farmers have relied on European migrant workers for decades

A visa scheme for migrant farm workers was in place in some form between 1945 and 2014. Participants were typically students from European countries.

The most recent incarnation, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, was restricted to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from 2008. It was then scrapped altogether in 2014. The government considered that demand could be met by EU workers allowed to come to the UK without visas, particularly from Eastern European countries.

Following reports of labour shortages and concerns about the effect of ending EU free movement, a new Seasonal Worker Pilot scheme was announced in 2018. The Migration Advisory Committee said “if there is no such scheme it is likely that there would be a contraction and even closure of many businesses” in the horticultural sector.

The current Seasonal Worker visa scheme has a quota of 45,000-55,000 a year

The new Seasonal Worker scheme launched in March 2019 initially had a quota of 2,500 places per year. Free movement of EU workers has since ended. In 2023 and 2024, there are at least 45,000 places per year (plus another 2,000 for poultry workers). This can be increased by another 10,000 a year if the government considers it necessary to meet demand.

When the pilot began, workers mostly came from Ukraine and Russia. Today a much wider range of nationalities is represented, including from Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They are allowed to do certain types of work (such as crop harvesting) in edible and ornamental horticulture for up to six months in any year.

The Johnson Government said that the Seasonal Worker scheme would be in place at least until the end of 2024, but that the quota would be gradually reduced. By contrast, the Sunak Government increased the quota for 2023 and 2024.

The visas are temporary, with limited rights and extra safeguards

Seasonal Worker visas are issued by the Home Office. The criteria are set out in the Immigration Rules. Visa holders are not allowed to remain in the UK long-term, claim benefits or bring their families.

The government has authorised a small number of recruitment companies, known as ‘scheme operators’, to arrange Seasonal Worker visas. Farmers must hire their overseas workers through those companies and must demonstrate that they are actively trying to recruit UK-based workers as well. They cannot sponsor Seasonal Worker visas directly.

As part of the visa sponsorship arrangements, scheme operators have explicit duties to look after workers’ welfare and make sure they are paid properly.

In 2022, one of the seven scheme operators was stripped of its licence and a second suspended.

There are increasing concerns about exploitation of migrant workers

The government recognises that Seasonal Worker visa holders “may be more vulnerable and open to exploitation than other workers”. As the numbers have increased, so have instances and allegations of exploitation or poor working conditions. These include examples of workers paying overseas recruiters to secure work in the UK; the need to pay off the resulting debt makes them more dependent on their UK employer.

Scheme operators must have a licence from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and can have it revoked if they failed to abide by certain standards. But the regulator does not routinely carry out inspections on farm premises and says it is not the “lead agency” on the rights of seasonal workers. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has reported a “lack of clarity about who is holding farmers and scheme operators accountable”.

The Migration Advisory Committee and House of Lords Horticulture Sector Committee are both holding inquiries into the Seasonal Worker scheme, including the treatment of workers.

Government policy is to reduce reliance on overseas workers

The government wants farmers to gradually replace overseas workers with domestic labour and machines. A review of automation in horticulture has recommended that the Seasonal Worker scheme continue to play a major role until technology such as robot crop pickers becomes widely available.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has commissioned an Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain. Its findings, which are overdue, will inform decisions on the future of the Seasonal Worker scheme beyond 2024.

The National Farmers’ Union says reliance on overseas labour “will continue to increase” for the foreseeable future. Farming industry representatives, including the NFU, want the Seasonal Worker scheme to be guaranteed five years ahead and for visas to last nine months instead of six.

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