The motion for the debate is: 

That this House recognises that seasonal migrant workers make a substantial and positive impact on the UK economy; believes that easy access to seasonal migrant workers is vital for economic prosperity; and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to allow businesses to continue to access seasonal migrant workers from EU and non-EU countries. 

There will be no stand-alone Debate Pack produced for this debate, but the following summary and links may be useful.

A July 2017 Commons Library Briefing Paper on Migrant workers in agriculture provides background information about the now-discontinued Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, subsequent concerns about labour shortages in the sector, and the potential implications of Brexit for future access to labour. See also section 7.1 of the Library Briefing Brexit: future UK agriculture policy (1 February 2018).

Background to closure of Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

Between 1945 and 2013 a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) provided an immigration route for employers to satisfy labour demands in the agricultural sector. The last version of the scheme, in place from 2008 to 2013, allowed fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to do short-term, low-skilled agricultural work in the UK for a maximum of six months at a time.

In 2005 the then Government announced its intention to close the SAWS scheme, on the assumption that future low-skilled labour migration needs could be satisfied from within the EU labour market. The scheme eventually closed at the end of 2013 when restrictions on the free movement rights of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens were lifted. The Migration Advisory Committee had advised that there was no immediate shortfall in labour, although it advised that shortages could arise after 2017.

Further to the closure of the SAWS visa category, DEFRA established the “SAWS Transition Working Group”, subsequently renamed the “Seasonal Workforce Working Group”, to monitor the supply of seasonal labour. Membership of the group includes agricultural and horticultural growers, industry representatives, labour providers and relevant government departments.

Since the closure of the SAWS scheme, and particularly in the run-up to the UK’s exit from the EU, concerns have been raised that the industry is suffering from a shortfall in workers, resulting in crops being left unharvested and concerns about the future viability of the industry. There are calls for the return of the SAWS scheme or something similar.

Previous debate

There was a Westminster Hall debate on Seasonal Agricultural Workers on 6 July 2017, during which Members discussed the agricultural sector’s concerns and calls for a new visa scheme for seasonal agricultural workers.

Responding to the debate, George Eustice, DEFRA Minister of State, said that the Home Office had indicated that, if necessary, the SAWS scheme could be reinstated within five to six months through secondary legislation.

Recent developments

Expected timetable for future changes to the immigration system

The Government is currently reviewing the UK’s immigration provisions, in order to design a post-Brexit immigration system. It has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to research the impact of leaving the EU on the UK labour market, and how to align immigration policy with a modern industrial policy. The MAC has been asked to report by September 2018, although it might publish some interim reports before then. It is expected that the Government’s immigration White Paper will now not be published until after the MAC’s report.

A DEFRA consultation paper published on 27 February 2018 on “the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit” includes a short section on labour issues. It notes the work being undertaken by the MAC but does not refer to seasonal workers schemes as a possible solution to labour shortages. It acknowledges the “concerns of stakeholders in relation to the current reliance on migrant workers, and acknowledges the need for an implementation period following our exit from the UK to avoid a cliff edge for businesses”. It goes on to state: “For the longer term we want to work with industry to encourage more domestic workers to enter the profession and attract the engineering, manufacturing, research and other STEM skills necessary for an increasingly sophisticated food and farming industry”. (page 30)

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee is currently holding a follow-up inquiry into labour constraints in the agricultural sector. Submissions from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Association of Labour Providers contain recent data on reported shortages of labour.

The NFU submission notes that:

  • Labour providers recruited 4,377 fewer workers than needed between January – December 2017. There were no reported shortages in 2016.
  • There has been an average shortfall of 13% across 2017, with September peaking at a 29% shortfall. This is the percentage shortfall of workers needed versus workers recruited.
  • The sector has experienced the lowest annual returnee rate since 2014. In 2017 an average of just 29% of workers had worked a previous season. This is compared to 41% in 2016.

Results from the NFU’s End of Season survey showed that:

  • Nearly 60% of relevant respondents did not secure the number of seasonal workers that they needed in 2017. 
  • 13% of those recruiting seasonal workers said that they were significantly short of the number required in 2017. 
  • Nearly half (48%) of those employing seasonal labour struggled to recruit the seasonal labour they needed in 2017; with 36% saying it was difficult and 12% saying it was very difficult.

The Association of Labour Providers’ submission anticipated constraints in 2018:

  • 43% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source and supply sufficient workers for the food manufacturing and distribution sectors in 2018.
  • 49% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source and supply sufficient seasonal agricultural workers in 2018.
  • 75% of agriculture and horticulture businesses anticipate shortages in low and unskilled roles in 2018 and of these over a quarter envisage a labour supply crisis.
  • Food growers and manufacturers are reporting real impacts on their businesses caused by labour shortages – from increased costs, to relocation, with scaling down and threats to viability. 

Further information

Migrant workers in agriculture, Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP-7987, 4 July 2017

Brexit: future UK agriculture policy, Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP-8218, 1 February 2018

Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, The impact of Brexit on the UK agricultural workforce, 2016

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