The migrant workers shortage in agriculture

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The increasing demand of farmers for migrant workers has risen in recent years due to a host of factors, including the impact of the Brexit referendum and falling unemployment in the UK. With the UK now leaving the European Union within the next two years, the difficulties facing farmers who rely on the labour of migrants for the sustainability of their agri-businesses appear to be at their most pressing in years. A look at the UK's previous arrangements for EU and non-EU migrant labour workers helps contextualise the issue and highlights the obstacles facing the Government going into the Brexit negotiations.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was originally introduced post-1945 as an exchange programme encouraging students from abroad to work in agriculture during harvest times. The SAWS has since evolved and in its final iteration enabled eligible migrants to come to the UK for short periods for the specific purpose of living and working on farms during peak seasons. The majority of these migrants came from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. However, with the UK's accession to the EU and the subsequent creation of the Single Market, the SAWS was closed at the end of 2013 coinciding with the lifting of restrictions on the free movement rights of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. The Government of the day took the view that EU migrants were sufficient to meet the needs of UK famers.

A replacement scheme

With the aftermath of Brexit not yet clear, the Government is yet to announce what its post-Brexit immigration policy will be for migrant workers of EU member states. There have been calls for a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which would go beyond the geographical boundaries of the previous SAWS and look to migrant labourers from around the globe. The issue with such a scheme is the current points-based system applicable to applicants from the rest of the world, which makes a distinction between 'skilled' and 'unskilled' workers. Agricultural labourers are currently classed as 'unskilled' by this system, which is not only inaccurate as many workers in the agricultural sector are in fact extremely skilled at sector-specific tasks such as crop handling and harvesting, but also unworkable as 'unskilled' workers in this system do not have enough points to be drafted in for agricultural work.

Domestic labour

The labour shortage caused by the reliance on migrant workers raises the pertinent question: Why do farmers not employ more domestic labourers instead? A number of factors expose the difficulty farmers are faced with when persuading domestic labourers to undertake agricultural labour. The low unemployment rate in the UK and ageing rural populations make sourcing domestic labour problematic. Even at times where there is an availability of domestic labourers, the physical nature of the work coupled with the cold conditions and cumbersome safety equipment imposed by health and safety regulations means that farmers tend to lose out to other industries.

Automation

The possibility of addressing labour shortages by means of technology has been mooted within the industry in recent times, with the previous Government's Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom encouraging farmers to boost productivity by making full use of new agri-robotics (read our latest article on Michael Gove, who has now replaced Leadsom as Environment Secretary). Driverless tractors that can follow pre-programmed routes are already being deployed at large farms around the world, as are drones for assessing crop and soil health.

There are limits to automation. However technology is yet to provide us with machines that are able to fill the human workers gap, as most machines are not dextrous enough to adapt quickly and efficiently to the range of shapes and sizes of fruit and vegetables or animals on the slaughter line. Farmers will be reluctant to invest in machines until they are convinced they are economical.

In the short term, it appears that technology is not able to provide an all-encompassing solution to the UK's need for EU agricultural labour; nor is there sufficient domestic labour to address the shortfall. The negotiations between the UK and the EU on free movement are likely to play a pivotal role in the future of the UK agri-food supply in the following years. Certainly the longer the future of EU nationals in the UK remains uncertain, the less attractive a place to live and work the UK will be, and the greater labour market gaps will be. What's more, the consequences of a persistent shortage in labour supply could lead to more roles needing to be filled with a smaller pool of workers, leading to an increase in production cost which will ultimately be borne by the consumer.

Most crucial of all, if the migrant labour shortage is not resolved soon farmers will find themselves precariously placed to meet the demands of farming work and will struggle to continue their agri-businesses.