The government has announced a new temporary work visa for agricultural workers in response to a two-year campaign by farmers to plug the gap in the labour force opened up by Brexit.
While welcomed by farmers, it has also been immediately criticised because it is limited to 2,500 people a year, barely touching the needs of British summer fruit and vegetable growers who point out that horticulture employs 60,000 workers a year, mostly from eastern Europe.
“To have any effect in terms of supporting our successful industry, (a desire much-stated in the release) around 10,000 are needed now – not 2,500 – this number will have little effect on the current shortages UK farms are facing as we speak. The proposal represents a 4% increase in a shrinking workforce, said Nick Marston chairman of British Summer Fruits.
Farmers, and particularly summer fruit growers, rely heavily on eastern European workers for their harvests and have been protesting that they are already facing shortages this year with the prospect of food rotting in the fields after Brexit.
Under the two-year pilot scheme, non-EU migrant workers will be able to work on farms for six months and then leave the country.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, said he had listened to the “powerful arguments” of farmers that the pilot would “ease the workforce pressures” and promised to review its results to look at how best to continue supporting fruit and vegetable farms.
“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,” he said.
The initiative is a direct replacement for a previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme (Saws) that was scrapped in 2013 after additional eastern European countries joined the EU providing farmers with ample labour.
Marston said 21,250 workers were allowed into the country under the old Saws scheme but that the British summer fruits market boomed so much there were still shortages of 21,000 staff a year, even after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU which gave farms unfettered access to labour across the EU.
“The British berry industry is a great success story. We are nearly 100% self-sufficient for a long period of the year, and we need this level of support if we are to continue to thrive and grow,” said Marston.
“Whilst we appreciate the need for government to manage the scheme, we would ask for further clarification on how they see this moving to a sustainable longer-term solution that can provide for the shortage in labour we are already dealing with,” he said.
Marston added that rivals to Britain such as Germany already recognise the big shortages issuing visas for 60,000 Ukrainians in 2018, for example.
The National Farmers Union told the environment secretary earlier this year that the new visa scheme was now “mission critical”, with data showing fruit and vegetable workers were already hit by labour shortages with produce left to rot in the fields in 2017.
Farmers fear that after Brexit the supply of eastern European workers, predominantly Polish and Romanian, will dry up unless there is a special visa scheme.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, said the pilot scheme would “ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year”.
He added that he was committed to “having an immigration system that reduces migration to sustainable levels, supports all industry and ensures we welcome those who benefit Britain”.
Soft fruit is one of the few products in which Britain is entirely self-sufficient producing all raspberries and strawberries consumed in the country, contributing £2bn to the economy in 2016.
The pilot, which will commence in spring 2019, will run until the end of December 2020 and will be monitored closely by the Home Office and Defra.