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The agriculture sector employed around 467,400 people in the UK 2021, across various farm types. Some 64% of this workforce was in England (nearly 300,000 workers). The agricultural workforce was around 67,400 in Scotland, around 52,200 in Northern Ireland, and around 50,400 in Wales.

The UK’s agricultural workforce has a large component of part-time workers (40%) and family workers. It also has an ageing workforce, with more than a third (38%) of workers aged over 65 and only 3% aged under 35.

Seasonal workers

Employment levels in the agricultural sector have remained relatively stable in recent years, however different farm sectors have differing requirements for labour. These requirements can vary significantly seasonally. The arable and horticulture sector in particular relies on seasonal workers to harvest crops. A high proportion of the sector’s seasonal workforce has for a number of years been supplied by non UK workers. Defra’s Food Security Report 2021 estimated that up until the last two years 99% of seasonal workers in the horticultural sector came from outside the UK each season.

Between 1945 and 2007, the principal route for foreign agricultural workers was the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). The quota for SAWS was around 20,000 worker cards per year prior to 2014, when the scheme ended. The Government has now introduced the T5 (Temporary Worker) Seasonal Worker visa route which enables people to come to work in the UK’s horticulture sector for up to six months.  The visa was launched as a pilot scheme in 2019 limited to 2,500 visas. It has since been extended and now has an expanded quota of 30,000 places.

In late December 2021 the Government confirmed that the visa would remain in place to 2024 and would include ornamental as well as edible horticulture.  The quota for 2022 remains 30,000 visas, with the possibility of increasing to 40,000 places if necessary. The Government intends that the annual visa quota will begin to taper down from 2023.

The visa is intended to help alleviate labour shortages in the sector but is not intended to meet all its estimated need for labour. The Government maintains that the agricultural sector should make greater use of automation and recruitment of domestic workers to meet demand.

Concerns about labour supply

Representatives of the sector have expressed increasing concern in recent years about the impacts of constraints on labour supply. The NFU has called for “a more enabling immigration policy which mitigates against the crippling labour shortages and structural issues that have existed throughout the food supply chain for many months”. The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) has said that Britain’s tree and plant growers require an immediate 3,000 increase in full-time workers. It has called for an extension of the Seasonal Workers Scheme to provide more visas to benefit ornamental horticulture as well as farming “in the interests of the UK economy, environment and food security”.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s (EFRA) April 2022 report, Labour Shortages in the Food and Farming Sector, expressed concerns about the potential impact of serious labour shortages in the food and farming sector. It said that if the Government did not “radically shift its attitude” there were risks of the sector shrinking and food prices rising.

The Government has acknowledged that the agricultural sector has faced pressures in meeting its labour needs. It cites the Covid-19 pandemic and EU exit as two of the pressures.  Ministers refer to mitigations put in place, including extension of the Seasonal Workers route to 2024 and additional visas for sectors facing particular constraints, such as the pig and poultry sector.

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