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Government should think before accepting ‘hugely detrimental’ advice on migrant workers, says farmers’ spokesman

PUBLISHED: 15:14 01 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:14 01 October 2018

Workers in a potato store. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Workers in a potato store. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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A report by the Migration Advisory Committee could have a “hugely detrimental impact on UK agriculture” if taken on board by the government, says GEORGE DUNN, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers AssociationGeorge Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association

Just over a year ago, the home secretary commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to investigate current and possible future patterns of migration into the UK from the European Economic Area and to assess the economic and social impacts of that migration in the context of the government’s Industrial Strategy.

The intention of the government was to use the evidence presented to put in place a new immigration policy both for the Brexit implementation period (assumed to be the 20 months to end December 2020) and beyond. The 132-page report from the MAC landed on the desk of the home secretary mid-September.

Within its 14 main recommendations, the MAC argued that there was no reason why the UK should give preferential treatment to migrant workers from the European Union (EU) over and above other countries of the world. It also said that whilst the ceiling on the number of economic migrants allowed into the UK should be abolished, only “higher skilled” workers with salaries in excess of £30,000 should be given access to the UK.

Although its default position is to argue against sector-based schemes enabled to use more flexible conditions, it does see a potential place for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. A pilot of such a scheme was announced by the government at the beginning of September.

READ MORE: Migration report is ‘missing the point’ about farm workers, say industry leaders

By focusing on a narrow definition of “skill”, the conclusions of the MAC, if taken on board by the government, are likely to have a hugely detrimental impact on UK agriculture.

Whilst the move to allow up to 2,500 seasonal agricultural workers to migrate to the UK is welcome, that will fall considerably short of the need.

It is estimated that UK horticultural businesses employ up to 60,000 seasonal workers from the EU annually, with many already reporting a considerable shortfall in the staff they require. It is estimated that a scheme of around four times the size is needed.

However, the real problem is with permanent or semi-permanent labour, both employed directly within agriculture, but also within food processing including abattoirs, butchery and pack houses.

Traditionally, these sectors have relied upon migrant labour, not as an excuse to pay lower salaries, but because there is a general lack of availability from UK-born sources. There is an apparent pattern of individuals working for three or four years before moving on, in some cases returning to their country of origin, then to be replaced by other migrant workers who follow the same pattern.

Jobs in these categories do not fall within the definition of “skilled” used by the MAC and although that could be argued, the real issue that should be considered is not skill but need.

The MAC seems to suggest that, in the absence of a ready supply of migrant workers, it would be straightforward for businesses to employ greater numbers of UK-born staff and that higher salary levels may be required to entice workers into the sector. Evidence from the sectors affected suggest differently with reports of severe difficulties in recruiting UK born staff into their operations.

Inevitably, it will take time to create a new pipeline of workers ready, willing and able to take on many of the roles previously filled by migrant workers. This is not a simple matter of economics but one requiring a significant change in culture and aspiration. Instead of cutting off the supply of needed labour, causing contraction in processing capacity, with the inevitable impacts on the profitability of agriculture, we should be looking at taking a stepped approach which will see UK born labour gradually replace migrant labour over time. This effort will require a considerable amount of collaboration between government and industry.

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