Seasonal Overseas Labour and a New UK Entrants Scheme
The Horticulture Sector urgently needs a Government plan for Seasonal Overseas Labour and a UK New Entrants Scheme.
There are 4149 fruit and veg farms in England, contributing to the UK production of 3.1 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables last year. 74% of fruit and veg farms grow on a large scale (over 5 hectares) and supply into supermarkets. These in the main have become reliant on around 75,000-80,000 overseas workers, the majority from Poland, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria, to sow, maintain, harvest and pack their fruit and veg. The other 26% of farms grow on smaller areas of under 5 hectares per farm. They mainly supply direct through mechanisms such as box schemes and are mainly run and staffed by UK residents. Overseas labour is not really an issue for the small-scale sector but recruiting and retaining UK workers is.
Covid-19 and Brexit have highlighted the risks of dependency on overseas labour for UK fruit and vegetable production. Covid-19 made it physically impossible for overseas workers to travel leading to a shortfall in seasonal labour and a need for an emergency UK recruitment drive – Pick for Britain. Brexit, without a seasonal labour scheme yet, is making it bureaucratically impossible for workers to enter the UK. As it stands on November 13th, freedom of movement ends on the 31st December and there is still no scheme in place to allow overseas workers to enter the UK.
The NFU and others are calling urgently for a new Seasonal Labour Scheme. But so far, the Government has made no announcement on this, leading to considerable erosion of confidence for the large-scale sector. The Government standpoint stems from an aspiration for UK workers, many newly unemployed due to Covid-19 restrictions, to gain employment in horticulture. Small-scale farmers share this aspiration.
But the large-scale sector argues “The Pick for Britain campaign was a great initiative, and many have suggested we could continue to recruit a domestic workforce for the coming 2021 season and beyond. While there was a fantastic response from Brits to the call for domestic workers this year in extraordinary circumstances, we see from the survey results that they only made up 11% of the workforce, the rest still coming from overseas. Seasonal work on farm simply isn’t a viable solution for many.” And that “What we’re asking of them is huge; in reality it means people needing to work in very rural areas, away from their homes and families, where they will only have guaranteed work for between three and six months.”
But 11% of seasonal workers being from the UK, according to the NFU survey, is a 1000% increase on the 1% previously estimated. This is a massive increase in the number of UK residents working in horticulture and an opportunity exists to build on this workforce and expand it in order to reduce the risks of labour shortages in the future. Small-scale farmers recognise the barriers for new entrants in horticulture and would welcome the development of a New Entrants Scheme.
But why aren’t the large-scale growers so keen? The issue may come down to costs. Jack Ward of the British Growers Association reports that large–scale growers are working on tight profit margins of up to 2%. This has been the situation for some time and coupled with a relative lack of investment in the sector historically means that the industry is not in a position to take on any more costs.
According to the Andersons report, compared with many UK farming enterprises, fruit and vegetable crops have high costs of production, making them particularly susceptible to cost inflation. For many growers, employment is their single largest cost, accounting for 40-70% of all costs. In the five years from 2016–2020 the cost of seasonal labour increased by at least 34%, whilst the prices growers received changed little, if at all. On top of this, Covid-19 has further increased the costs of production by up to 15%, most significantly for the costs of employment related to reduced worker availability and increased recruitment, increased training, added accommodation costs, added transport, logistic and operational costs. Covid-19 has increased costs but farm gate prices over this time , particularly for vegetables, have remained static.
As it stands the large-scale sector needs skilled, experienced seasonal overseas labour in order to stay in business. But going forward there is an opportunity to develop the UK horticulture workforce and improve the appeal of the profession with a New UK Entrants Scheme.
A New Entrants Scheme would, for example, help recruit and transition UK residents into horticulture and equip them with the right knowledge and skills. It could have small and large-scale ‘streams’ to cater for the different needs of the sectors. It could help subsidise the first 1-2 years of work as people transition to higher levels of skill and offer bespoke support where needed. If the sector were to fund this, they would need support. Either from retailers by increasing the prices they pay at the farm gate or from Government investment in the scheme or both.
The UK produced 3.1 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables last year. This is a quarter of what the UK population needs to meet Eatwell guide recommendations – 12.8 million tonnes before waste according to Food Foundation calculations. Although we had an availability of 8.7 million tonnes due to imports, if the country managed to drive the increases in consumption needed for health, more produce is needed and this represents an opportunity to expand production.
If we are going to maintain current levels of production, let alone expand to contribute to improving the nation’s diet, we need to address the labour issue. It is clear that in the short–term for large–scale producers the skills needed must come from a new Seasonal Overseas Workers Scheme, but we should also be pursuing a UK New Entrants Scheme that builds on the Pick for Britain momentum and attracts a whole range of people back to horticultural production for good.