UK farmers demand more workers for the summer season

26 July 2019

As we head through the summer months, spare a thought for overworked UK farmers who at the peak of the harvesting season are struggling to recruit the workers they need.

 We constantly hear talk of the issues around Brexit and trade, and about what  the UK will do if we leave without a deal, and the chaos in which we find ourselves. The National Farmers’ Union has long been lobbying hard for added flexibility in recruitment of non-EEA nationals, given the growth in the sector and simply because much of the labour doesn’t come from British nationals, who are less likely to work in (literally) the fields and help to pick the fruit that is so needed.

Soft fruit production in the UK has grown 130% in the last 20 years but farmers have seen a reduction in available labour. 

Tier 3 of the UK’s Points Based System introduced in 2008 was designed to cater for lower paid (skilled) labour – another story, but I often take issue with describing such jobs as 'lower skilled' as I know I wouldn’t be good at picking fruit and believe there is a skill in such jobs.   However,  it has never been used due to the flow of EEA nationals able to work in the UK. 

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) came about soon after WWII and was previously open to non-EEA nationals before being restricted in 2007 to only Romanian and Bulgarian nationals due to expansion of the European area in 2004 and 2007.  Transitional restrictions on the employment of Romanian and Bulgarian nationals ended on 1 January 2014 and the SAWS was closed entirely as, on the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee at the time, there was sufficient labour flowing from Europe.

Of course, now the UK is in a different place entirely given the implications of Brexit, and fewer EEA nationals are seeking work in the UK.  As a result, in September 2018 the government announced a new scheme for non-EEA seasonal agricultural workers in the fruit and vegetable sector – the Tier 5 (Temporary Worker – Seasonal Worker) category. 

This new scheme is a two year pilot whereby non-EEA nationals can apply for 6 month non-extendable visas to work in the agricultural sector from Spring 2019 to the end of December 2020 (presumably coinciding with when the UK was due to leave the EU and the end of the planned transition period). 

According to Appendix U of the Immigration Rules, there are two UK companies authorised to sponsor non-EEA national workers under the scheme: Concordia (UK) Limited and Pro-Force Limited.  Each sponsor has 1,250 visas for successful applicants.  While the scheme is billed as being for all non-EEA nationals, on Concordia (UK) Limited’s website it refers only to there being recruitment agent partners in Russia, Ukraine and Moldova and on Pro-Force Limited’s website it references recruitment of only Ukrainian and Moldovan nationals, given the limited number of visas currently available to use under the pilot.

In the UK’s White Paper of December 2018 on the planned post-Brexit skills based immigration system from 1 January 2021, there are plans on a transitional basis to include a category for temporary work at all skill levels for up to 12 months.  But with EEA migration to the UK already dwindling and with around 13% of UK seasonal worker roles going unfilled in recent years, farmers will be hoping the current small-scale pilot scheme for non-EEA nationals is expanded so they can cope during the peak summer months. I guess the question may be, do we think it’s time to use Tier 3?

About the author

Marcia  Longdon is a partner in our business immigration team. She has specialised in immigration, nationality and European law for over 20 years. She has a collaborative approach with the Home Office and government officials and is often invited to participate in consultations and round table discussions on changes to UK and European immigration.

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