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‘I am out of business if I cannot get these staff’ – farmer’s fears over new immigration rules

PUBLISHED: 05:46 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:28 21 February 2020

Norfolk asparagus grower Andy Allen is concerned about how new immigration rules will affect the seasonal migrant workforce which is critical to his business. Picture: Denise Bradley

Norfolk asparagus grower Andy Allen is concerned about how new immigration rules will affect the seasonal migrant workforce which is critical to his business. Picture: Denise Bradley

©Archant Photographic 2009

A Norfolk farmer fears fruit and vegetable operations like his could go bust if new immigration rules close the door to migrant workers who harvest and pack their crops.

Serious concerns have been raised over the impact of the government's new points-based immigration policy on farming's vital foreign workforce. Picture: Sonya DuncanSerious concerns have been raised over the impact of the government's new points-based immigration policy on farming's vital foreign workforce. Picture: Sonya Duncan

The new points-based system unveiled by the government this week means low-skilled workers would not meet the criteria to get visas. Businesses are being told not to rely on "cheap labour" from Europe after Brexit and should instead invest in retaining staff and developing automation technology.

But Andy Allen, who produces up to 250 tonnes of asparagus a year at Portwood Farm in Attleborough, said that is not a viable option.

He has currently booked about half of the 125 seasonal workers he will need for the coming harvest, which starts in April - and he said he would usually expect to be "more comfortable than that" by now.

For future years he is "very, very concerned" that an immigration system aimed at attracting highly-skilled workers could prevent him recruiting his seasonal team, which mostly travels from Romania and Bulgaria.

And he fears the current pilot seasonal workers scheme won't be rolled out in full quickly enough to bridge the gap - leaving businesses in jeopardy of collapsing.

"In principal we could lose our access to seasonal workers which are absolutely critical to my business," he said. "Frankly I am out of business if I cannot get these staff.

"If there were restrictions on labour we would all have to pack up and our food would have to be imported.

"We are in a very critical period as to our future and how we are able to carry on and we are hoping we will be able to get enough staff this season. But the ramifications are if these people fall into that low-skilled category next year they won't be able to come.

"We are lucky that we have a lot of people coming back year in, year out. We rely on that quite heavily, but we are now seeing the sort of people who would usually want to come back deciding not to. The trend we are seeing is they are tending to go to south Europe for work instead. They are spooked by the whole uncertainty and don't think just because we have got out of Europe now, that it is going to get better - it is not.

"Without migrant workers, whether skilled or unskilled, our economy flatlines. Certainly for asparagus and soft fruit growers, we are so reliant on European workers that businesses will collapse without them and I don't think the government has taken that on board.

READ MORE: 'Serious concerns' for farming's foreign workforce amid immigration changes

"I know they are trying to get us to invest in technology, but all these technologies are not out there to recognise the crops we are growing. Even if they were, it is hellishly expensive, so it is unviable. So for them to make a statement saying: 'Get on with it and invest in technology' is very flawed in what we are doing.

"And there are not enough local people wanting to do the job, with the employment levels we have here. People are not looking for seasonal work of two months here and there, they want to have full-time employment."

The government also announced this week that a seasonal workers pilot scheme is being expanded from 2,500 to 10,000 places this year.

But Mr Allen said the final scheme needs to be much larger - and he fears the final rollout won't happen quickly enough to meet the shortfall on farms.

He said: "10,000 is a drop in the ocean of what we really need. There are 90,000 workers in the food industry alone. Even if they rolled it out at 100,000 people a year, that would help, but it would not happen immediately. You cannot just 'turn on' another 90,000 seasonal workers just like that.

"If we cannot get staff this year and we cannot cut all the crop, I will have to really consider the long-term future. That's not just me, it is the whole fruit and veg industry. Everybody is looking at alternatives, and they are not looking to expand, they are looking to contract.

"We are hoping there will be some small print and caveats to make sure these workers can come into the agriculture and horticulture sectors. But at the moment I am very, very concerned."

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