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‘Serious concerns’ for farming’s foreign workforce amid immigration changes

PUBLISHED: 08:51 19 February 2020 | UPDATED: 13:12 19 February 2020

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 Duncan

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 Duncan

ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434

Serious concerns have been raised that the government’s post-Brexit immigration plans could “severely impact the farming sector” by preventing it recruiting vital foreign workers.

Iceberg lettuces being harvested in the Fens. Picture: Ian BurtIceberg lettuces being harvested in the Fens. Picture: Ian Burt

Low-skilled workers would not get visas under the new points-based system, which aims to attract highly-skilled people.

The Home Office says it wants to attract "the brightest and the best" workers into the UK, and is urging employers to move away from relying on "cheap labour" from Europe and invest in retaining staff and developing automation technology.

But farming leaders in East Anglia say the proposals could restrict the ability of food businesses to recruit essential migrant labour for manual jobs such as fruit picking, vegetable harvesting or meat packing - with many of these roles filled by workers from eastern Europe.

Rachel Carrington, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmer's Union (NFU), said "We have serious concerns about the impact this will have on farm businesses, and the entire food and farming sector, in our region.

"It's not just about having the workforce available to produce our food on farm. It's about finding people to work in the packhouses, processing plants, haulage firms and all the other roles within the UK's largest manufacturing sector. In times of low unemployment, many of these jobs are unlikely to be filled by British workers.

"Our region is a world-leader in research and development and there are lots of exciting developments in the pipeline. However, the [automation] technology required to replace the people we currently need is still many years away."

The government also announced that a seasonal workers pilot scheme is being expanded from 2,500 to 10,000 places to help give fruit and vegetable farmers access to a bigger pool of staff to pick this year's harvest.

But Mrs Carrington said unless the government commits to deliver a full scheme of 70,000 places from next year, "we are also looking at a serious shortfall in the seasonal workers who fulfil such a vital role, particularly for horticultural and poultry businesses."

NFU president Minette Batters said the expansion of the seasonal workers pilot scheme would ease "some pressure" in the coming season but "growers remain very concerned about how they will recruit vitally important seasonal workers in future.

"It is ironic that the government on the one hand is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet on the other hand making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain," she said.

"There are several issues within this proposed policy that need addressing, not least the incredibly short timeframe given for businesses to prepare, and we will be contributing to any consultation to ensure the views of Britain's farmers are heard."

READ MORE: Farmers must make radical changes to combat climate emergency, says industry leader

Environment secretary George Eustice said: "The farmers and growers I've spoken to have made a powerful case for needing more workers during the coming busy months.

"Expanding our seasonal workers pilot will help our farms with the labour they need for this summer's harvest, while allowing us to test our future approach further.

"We will always back our farmers and growers, who produce world-famous British food to some of the highest standards anywhere in the world."

The government also said arrangements with eight countries will continue to see 20,000 young people coming to the UK each year.

And the EU Settlement Scheme will ensure some EU citizens can stay living and working in the UK after Brexit, officials said.

These other options will give employers more flexibility but they are expected to take "other measures to address shortages", according to a policy paper on the plans.

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