Is there a post-brexit solution for farm workers?

The issues in relation to retaining agricultural workers surmising rotting fruit mountains have been widely reported by the media. Talk of the new schemes, quotas and sponsor licences are incredibly confusing. We have demystified some of the rhetoric.

Nationwide pilot scheme

In September last year, the Government announced a new nationwide pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural workers from outside the EEA to come and work in the UK. The scheme is aimed at alleviating the chronic shortage of workers in the farming industry following Brexit. Workers will be allowed to stay for up to 6 months before returning home.

The scheme is capped at 2,500 and will be part of a two year trial starting in spring 2019 and ending in December 2020.

The National Union of Farmers (NFU) has welcomed the announcement as a “major victory”. The last scheme of this type – Seasonal Agricultural Workers (SAWS) – was closed in 2013; it allowed 21,250 Romanian and Bulgarian workers to do the same jobs. With some fruit farms employing up to 800 workers at peak times and in an industry that employs around 35,000 seasonal workers, 2,500 suddenly doesn’t seem like a workable solution.

The immigration system

Just before Christmas the Government’s proposals about the UK’s future immigration system were published. The section of the scheme targeted at overseas workers repeatedly makes statements about how the UK will attract the “brightest” and “best skilled” workers once the UK leaves the EU. After the announcement about seasonal workers in September, some had high hopes that we would finally get some clarity for agricultural workers. In reality, the 164 page document gives one sentence about this:

“We will be running a small scale pilot scheme for agricultural workers in 2019”

How, what and when isn’t addressed! Innovation and going forward is given as the reason for no specific schemes for low skilled workers. The report states:

“Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to drive business change and ensure that UK companies are at the forefront of innovation going forwards”

This may sound like a sensible solution for some sectors but as explained in edition seven of Rural News, this doesn’t work in the farming industry.

A transitional measure has been announced where short-term workers would come to the UK for 12 months, return home for 12 months, re-enter for 12 months, etc. This is allegedly so people are prevented from working in the UK permanently. Only people without a criminal record from unspecified various countries will be able to participate and there is a clear indication that fees for these types of applications will increase to reflect the “transitory nature of the scheme”.

The document fails to recognise that so many EU nationals are employed in the agricultural sector because there are no mandatory Home Office fees to pay, and they can work for as long as they wish, settle and bring their partners and children if they want to.

The new scheme will not operate until the end of the implementation period. The route will be fully reviewed in 2025 and could be closed at whim if certain (non-specified) economic conditions warrant it, providing little or no job security to overseas workers. With so many disadvantages, many overseas workers may well question coming to the UK at all.

What do all the technical terms mean?

With so many dates and periods being mentioned, it is very important that employers and their EU employees understand what is likely to happen and when. The key dates so far are:

  • 29 March 2019 (withdrawal date) – UK leaves the EU. Nothing will change in terms of immigration status for EU worker rights until 30 March 2019.
  • 30 March 2019 – EU settlement scheme opens nationwide.
  • 31 December 2020 (end of implementation period) – EU nationals and families must register with the new scheme to confirm their immigration status by June 2021, if the withdrawal agreement goes ahead.
  • Autumn 2020 – new system for EU and non-EU nationals alike. 2025 review of short-term temporary workers.

How can you safeguard your position now?

If you employ EU workers, we advise urging them to apply for a Residence Card (if they have been here less than 5 years) or Permanent Residence Card (if they have been here for more than

5 years). More information about this process is explained in our blog. With Brexit looming and no concrete plans for the future, it seems farmers still have need for reassurrance about their long-term labour needs.

If you are concerned about how this issue may affect your farming business, please contact us on 020 3818 5433 or by email at: