Migrant labour vital for UK horticulture sector

by James Hallett

The British Growers Association has welcomed today’s report from the Government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee which highlights the critical role of seasonal migrant labour in maintaining the competitiveness and viability of the UK fresh produce sector. In considering the future of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, the Association is calling on Ministers to develop a successor scheme or face the inevitable consequences of reduced domestic production, increased imports and higher food prices.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allows an annual quota of 21,250 Bulgarian and Romanian workers to enter the UK for a maximum period of six months, accounting for one-third of Britain’s seasonal agricultural labour force. The scheme is due to close at the end of 2013 when transitional controls on these Eastern European nationals are lifted.

The Migration Advisory Committee’s report into the future of SAWS warns that the British horticulture sector faces contraction and disinvestment if growers fail to meet the staffing levels required for essential planting and harvesting operations. It advises the Government to consider proposals for a replacement scheme targeting workers from non-EU countries such as Ukraine which have a high number of agricultural students.

BGA chief executive James Hallett urged Ministers to accept the Committee’s advice and remove current uncertainty within the horticulture sector on this issue:

“The Committee’s conclusions are clear. The current scheme is well-managed and benefits UK growers, migrant workers and consumers while not disadvantaging UK workers.

“Britain’s horticulture sector is a high-value sector of the rural economy, producing 20% of the output value of UK farming on just 4% of the land area. Our industry has a key role to play in supporting the Government’s drive for economic growth within the agri-food sector, and British growers are on course to grow the fresh produce sector’s contribution to the UK economy from £3.7bn today to £5bn within 10 years.

“But continuing uncertainty over access to seasonal migrant labour, when sufficient workers cannot be found here in the UK, represents a major threat to future production and investment plans. Without adequate and reliable staffing levels it is almost inevitable that many UK growers will cancel investment plans and switch production out of the UK. Ministers need to act swiftly and decisively to establish a successor scheme in the interests of growers, consumers and the UK economy,” said Mr Hallett.