Prime ministerial front-runner Liz Truss has promised she will expand the government’s Seasonal Worker visa scheme if she succeeds in the Conservative Party’s leadership election next week.
In an online hustings event hosted by the NFU on Thursday morning, Truss said “we need to expand this scheme”, before adding she would “make sure the Home Office engages” on the issue.
“We need to do more to enable farmers to grow more food,” added the former Defra secretary, while promising to cut red tape for farmers.
Her comments came as growers have been reporting an increasing number of shortages of seasonal labour after pickers began leaving early following a bumper start to the season for many crops.
While dealing with early leavers was an annual occurrence for growers, the sheer number of departures was “unprecedented” this year, said British Apples & Pears chair Ali Capper.
Some 9.4% (or almost 3,000) of the seasonal workers employed via the Seasonal Worker visa had already departed for their home countries, according to an NFU labour survey.
And the situation could now affect the picking of late season and autumn crops, compounding existing labour concerns across the sector, Capper warned – while pointing to NFU research (published a fortnight ago), which revealed labour shortages had already created £60m-worth of crop losses this year.
“I’ve never seen data that showed this level of [staff] shortages and the levels of food lost,” she said, adding the Home Office “should be ashamed of itself” over its handling of seasonal labour policy.
Capper explained the situation had deteriorated this year because seasonal workers tended to come to the UK with a target in mind of what they wished to earn. When they reached it, they left.
The situation had exacerbated the sector’s wider labour shortages, with pickers expected to work longer hours and increased overtime meaning they met their earning targets sooner.
“Not enough visas were issued in the first place and there are some very important and labour-intensive crops harvested in September and October,” Capper said.
Given how a lack of workers has been an ongoing issue for the growing sector, average staff shortages on farms currently come to 14%, according to the NFU – a figure that does not include the added impact of early leavers.
“Historically the industry has needed 80-100,000 seasonal workers to get all the fruit crops picked,” said Matt Hancock, chairman of Love Fresh Cherries. “Pre-Brexit this was not an issue, and the UK fruit industry was an attractive option for European workers to come and work. Post- Brexit and post-covid we have a very different scenario.”
It comes amid renewed calls for the seasonal worker visa scheme to be expanded, with Capper warning the ongoing shortage of reliable workers left a “sword hanging over the heads of growers”.
“Holding the sector to ransom on the number of visas and then turning that into a negotiation every year is total nonsense,” she said.
“We are not going to recruit people we don’t need, number one. And number two, the scheme has got an excellent record of people returning home. So, allow us to recruit the number of people we need.”
Increasing the numbers of the seasonal worker visa from its existing 40,000 (which included a planned contingency of 10,000 implemented earlier this year) would also save on food waste and extra costs to businesses due to overtime, while reducing the risk of shortages when pickers returned home, she suggested.
Her comments were echoed by NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw, who said demand for workers was expected to increase next year, so the scheme needed to have the capacity to cope.
“This means increasing the number of visas available to meet the sector’s needs and expanding it to a minimum of a five-year rolling scheme to enable growers to have confidence to invest in their businesses – particularly given growth in the horticultural sector is a government ambition set out in the National Food Strategy,” Bradshaw added.
In response, a Defra spokesman said labour shortages were “affecting countries around the world and to support farmers across the UK we have already boosted the number of visas available through the seasonal workers route to 40,000”.
The government had also “made additional visas available to the poultry and ornamental horticulture sectors, opening up the scheme to thousands more and we continue to work closely with the farming sector to encourage people to take up jobs in the industry”, he added.