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30,000 UK Seasonal Worker Visas Made Available For 2021

Throughout 2020 as the post-Brexit immigration rules were being formed and finalised, it was apparent that the Home Office wanted to see an end to low-skilled migration. Understandably, given their reliance on labour from the European Union, this sent shockwaves through affected sectors including hospitality and agriculture. The farming industry, in particular, feared that vegetables would remain rotting in the ground and not on supermarket shelves. In reality, while the government may want to switch off the flow of lower-skilled workers from overseas, it was wholly unrealistic to make such a change effectively overnight. Indeed, according to the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), around 70% of food growers and manufacturers in the UK were expecting to have significant problems hiring lower-skilled workers in 2021.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the government has announced a programme to enable seasonal workers from overseas to continue to come to the UK. In this article, we will discuss the government’s extension of the Seasonal Workers Pilot for, and what this means for employers and seasonal workers planning to come to the UK.

What Has The Government Announced?

The Home Office’s press release explains, “The Seasonal Workers Pilot, originally launched in 2019, has been extended and expanded for an additional year with 30,000 visas available for those wanting to come and work on UK farms for a period of up to six months. The workers will play a vital role in helping horticulture growers pick and package their produce in 2021, whilst reducing their reliance on migrant labour as we exit the EU”.

The purpose of extending the programme is to ensure that there are sufficient workers to pick and pack fruit and vegetables grown in the UK for the 2021 harvest period. This means that both EU and non-EU workers will be able to continue to come to the UK to take up seasonal work in 2021.

The initial pilot was administered by two ‘Operators’, Concordia and Pro-Force Limited, however, to meet the requirements of the extended programme, two further Operators are currently being sought by the government.

Will The Extension Of The Seasonal Workers Pilot Be Enough?

While the announcement has been received positively, there is also some concern it may not be enough, especially in the agriculture and food sectors. In response to the news, Tom Bradshaw, the vice president of the National Farmer’s Union said, “By expanding the Seasonal Workers Pilot, the government is sending a clear message that it is important for Britain to be able to produce its own fruit and veg, which has huge potential for growth. This scheme will allow growers to employ seasonal workers at key times to pick a wide variety of fresh produce on British farms. While this announcement is a significant step forward, we know that this will not meet the sector’s entire seasonal workforce need and we are working hard to find solutions to this extremely urgent issue”.

Given the concern that the pilot extension will not meet all of the labour needs of the farming industry, and because the COVID-19 pandemic is reducing the number of people who can come to the UK, there is a growing need to attract domestic workers to fill seasonal roles.

What Other Initiatives Are In Place To Encourage Seasonal Workers?

The ‘Pick for Britain’ initiative is the main scheme intended to encourage more local workers into the farming industry. According to the NFU, 8,000 domestic workers (or around 11% of all pickers and packers) were recruited through the scheme in the Summer of 2020, this represents a sizeable increase on the 1% of local workers in 2019. As the ‘Pick for Britain’ website explains, “Pick For Britain helps bring workers and employers together and ensures the UK can continue to deliver the best quality British fruit & veg for everyone to enjoy”.

In relation to the scheme, the government says, “the government alongside industry will build on this year’s Pick for Britain campaign and actively promote the recruitment and retention of domestic seasonal workers in 2021. This year Pick for Britain helped to raise the profile of roles in the sector, encouraging UK based workers take on seasonal jobs during the busy harvest months to help keep the nation fed”. While the numbers recruited under the initiative are clearly not sufficient to meet the whole needs of sectors reliant on seasonal workers, the increase in the uptake of local workers is a positive sign. It will, therefore, not be too surprising if the Seasonal Workers Pilot is extended again next year.

The Association of Labour Providers (ALP) has also launched their free of charge ‘Extra Workers Needed Portal’. ALP’s research has revealed that 92% of food growers and manufacturers now believe they will not have enough workers to meet the UK’s food supply chain’s needs in 2021. The portal is designed to ease the problem by linking hundreds of labour providers with businesses searching for workers.

In addition to the above initiatives, DEFRA will be running a review into automation in horticulture in 2021, in large part to reduce the country’s reliance on lower-skilled labour from overseas. According to Environment Secretary George Eustice, “Our review into automation will pave the way for a pioneering and efficient future for our fruit and vegetable growers”. Many in the farming and food sectors may, understandably, be concerned about the likely time lag between the review and any implementation of new technology.

Final Words

Anyone who expects automation to fill the labour gap in seasonal workers anytime is likely to be rather disappointed. In reality, once a review has been completed, there is then the need to research and develop new technologies, source funding, test solutions, and then build the automation capability to the scale necessary to make a difference nationally. This may take years. It is possible that more domestic workers can be encouraged to plug more of the hole left by EU workers, but not all, hence we can expect more sticking-plaster solutions from the government in the next couple of years.

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