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‘Too little, too late’ – East Anglian farmers sceptical over new seasonal work scheme for non-EU labour

PUBLISHED: 14:44 07 September 2018 | UPDATED: 15:27 07 September 2018

Farmers across East Anglia have been concerned about a shortage of migrant labour in the run-up to the UK's departure from the European Union. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Farmers across East Anglia have been concerned about a shortage of migrant labour in the run-up to the UK's departure from the European Union. Picture: Sonya Duncan

ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434

East Anglian farmers have given a lukewarm reception to a government pilot scheme to allow more non-EU workers into the country to fill anticipated labour shortages.

Kemps Herbs
Malcolm kemp
Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2018Kemps Herbs Malcolm kemp Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2018

East Anglian farmers have given a lukewarm reception to a government pilot scheme to allow more non-EU workers into the country to fill anticipated labour shortages.

Under the proposals, up to 2,500 non-EU nationals who come to work on fruit and vegetable farms in the UK will be able to stay for six months before returning.

Ministers said the initiative, which will start in spring next year and run until the end of December 2020, will help alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods.

And while farming leaders have welcomed it as a step in the right direction, there remains confusion over why the measures have taken so long to emerge, and do not go further in their scope.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said the government has listened to “powerful arguments” from farmers about the need for the UK’s 75,000-strong temporary migrant workforce to be protected.

He said: “From lettuce in East Anglia to strawberries in Scotland, we want to make sure that farmers can continue to grow, sell and export more great British food.

“This two-year pilot will ease the workforce pressures faced by farmers during busy times of the year.

“We will review the pilot’s results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU.”

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, called the measures a “major victory”.

She said: “Farmers and growers have seen worker availability tighten significantly in recent years, with the shortfall so far this year reaching 10%.

“Growers will take great confidence in knowing that they will have access to workers for the 2019 harvest, during what have been extremely testing and uncertain times for the sector.”

The first seasonal agricultural workers scheme was introduced in response to labour shortages after the Second World War.

Under the last such programme in the UK, fruit and vegetable growers were allowed to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months at a time, but the route was closed in 2013 when the two countries joined the EU.

Two scheme operators will run the pilot, overseeing worker placements and ensuring they reach their employer and leave the UK at the end of their visa.

“Too little, too late”

“Too little, too late” – that was the verdict on the scheme from an East Anglian farmer who relies upon temporary migrant workers to keep his business running.

Malcolm Kemp runs a herb business near Thetford and grows 60-80 tonnes of crops a week across 600 acres of land at Kilverstone and East Harling.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a needle in a haystack,” he said. “The numbers are so low - there are some farms that take 800 workers at a time, so 2,500 for the country is nothing.

“Why is it just a pilot? We know that SAWS [the seasonal agricultural workers scheme] works, so why is it on such a small scale? It just shows the government is in disarray.”

At the peak of the season around 65 foreign workers, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, are employed on Mr Kemp’s farms. Around 60% return year after year – a high rate for the industry – thanks to a link with nearby Portwood Farm which gives workers extended employment.

He said Kemp Herbs had fared well so far amid the uncertainty over labour, but feared it could change.

“We’ve not suffered yet with labour but I think we may be about to, even with this scheme. The good thing is the exchange rate is coming back [from its lows in the wake of the Brexit vote] and it’s getting better, which will make a big difference,” said Mr Kemp.

“We’ll be writing to all our staff to tell them to keep an eye on the exchange rates, because they can earn more than a couple of years ago.

“I also think that they’d rather come to us than go to, say, Germany because they learn English at school and they can also get a better length of employment here.”

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