The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published an open letter launching a new website to help recruit workers for picking the harvest this year, due to the shortfall in available seasonal workers as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. As the Secretary of State writes: "The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge disruption to countries around the world, with many of the migrant agricultural workers who were here, returning home to be with their families. Many of those who would have come across for picking season may not be joining the harvest this year. The peak season is fast approaching, and I know that growers will be thinking about the workers they need in the fields and orchards to pick fruit and vegetables." The Government is calling on local labour and students to come forward to fill this labour shortfall. We cannot allow fruit and vegetables to rot, and the Alliance is calling for all those who can, to help in this national effort. The full text of the letter can be found here.
The new website will act as a central hub to signpost people to the jobs available and to hold guidance and resources so growers, workers and industry can have a single place to go. The Pick for Britain website can be found here.
The current crisis has demonstrated the importance of seasonal workers to the UK, especially in the agricultural sector. The UK is currently reliant on over 70,000 seasonal workers, the vast majority of whom come from the EU under freedom of movement. A smaller number come from outside the EU, although this number has increased following Brexit, with a few EU citizens coming to work in the UK. However, once the transformation period ends on 1st January, free movement will come to an end and anyone wishing to come to the UK will have to do so in accordance with the new points-based immigration system which comes into force on 1st January 2021.
This system contains no special route of entry for what the Government classifies as "lower-skilled" workers. Thanks to extensive lobbying by the Countryside Alliance and other stakeholders, the Government has at last recognised the importance of seasonal workers to the sector and rural economy. Reversing previous Government policy, they have agreed to expand the pilot seasonal workers scheme that has been running for 2019 and 2020 for non-EU citizens. However, this scheme, which after the end of freedom of movement will apply to all workers from outside the UK, is currently only for the 10,000 seasonal workers across the entire agricultural sector, and to date the Government has given no indication as to how this scheme is to be expanded both in terms of numbers and the sectors to which it will apply. Industry needs clarity now, with just eight months until the current arrangements cease.
We support the Government's ambition to reduce reliance on seasonal workers from abroad, by modernising UK agriculture and raising wages, but this will require time and investment. In the meantime, an expanded seasonal workers scheme should be designed which is responsive to any changes in demand for labour. The needs of industry should determine numbers, and access to the scheme needs to be available across all agricultural sectors including game farms and forestry. To cut off, or severely restrict, access to labour before the wider industry changes the Government wishes to see, would be hugely damaging to the economy.
This is a matter of urgent concern and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee are conducting an inquiry: Labour in the Food Supply Chain. The Countryside Alliance has submitted evidence to the Committee. As with all submissions to select committees, we cannot publish our submission until the committee in question has done so. We will make it available here as soon as possible.