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There are 467,000 people in the UK’s agricultural workforce. A significant proportion of this – at least 55,000 – is seasonal or casual labour. Farmers rely overwhelmingly 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 (SAWS), was restricted to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from 2008. SAWS 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 is in place until 2024

The new Seasonal Worker scheme launched in March 2019 initially had a quota of 2,500 places per year. The quota has increased every year since 2019. In 2022, there are 38,000 visas available (plus another 2,000 for poultry workers).

When the pilot began, workers mostly came from Ukraine and Russia. In 2022, a wide range of nationalities are represented, including from Central Asian countries such as 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 reduced to 30,000 in 2023 and 28,000 in 2024. By contrast, during her Conservative leadership campaign Liz Truss promised to increase the quota.

There has been no confirmation that an increase will be pursued under the Sunak Government. Nor has there been an announcement on the future of the scheme beyond 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 only 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.

There are 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”. Its review of the 2019 pilot phase identified no instances of modern slavery but some potential welfare issues.

The main agency involved in the welfare of seasonal workers is the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. Scheme operators must have a licence from the 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 some critics say it lacks the resources to police abuses of workers’ rights.

Government policy is to reduce reliance on overseas workers

Farming industry representatives remain concerned about labour shortages. The National Farmers’ Union says “the outlook for farming labour is tight and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future”.

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 become widely available.

An Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain is due to report in spring 2023. Its findings will inform decisions on the future of the Seasonal Worker scheme beyond 2024.

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