Farming organisations supported the findings of the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which warned this week British farmers may be unable to recruit enough seasonal workers because the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is ending this year.
SAWS allows an annual quota of 21,250 Bulgarian and Romanian workers to enter the UK for six months a year, and accounts for one-third of Britain’s seasonal agricultural labour. It is currently unclear whether SAWS will be replaced.
“British growers have come to rely on migrant seasonal workers to produce and harvest their crops every year so it is absolutely vital that we have access to a new SAWS after 2013, particularly given a rising demand for world-class British produce,” said vice chairman of the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board, Anthony Snell.
“Continuing uncertainty over access to seasonal migrant labour, when sufficient workers cannot be found here in the UK, represents a major threat to future production and investment plans”
James Hallett, British Growers Association
“The MAC makes a solid case for a replacement to SAWS – describing it as extremely well managed and important for keeping long-term migration down. MAC points out that the alternatives to replacing SAWS are bleak - we either accept that there will be a contraction of the horticulture industry in the UK or wait for technological advances that might, in future, reduce our reliance on migrant workers.”
The NFU cited a survey that suggested 95% of farmers who used SAWS felt its removal would negatively impact their business.
The British Growers Association (BGA) also called on the government to find a replacement to SAWS.
“Continuing uncertainty over access to seasonal migrant labour, when sufficient workers cannot be found here in the UK, represents a major threat to future production and investment plans. Without adequate and reliable staffing levels it is almost inevitable that many UK growers will cancel investment plans and switch production out of the UK,” said the BGA’s chief executive, James Hallett.
The MAC report suggested the end of SAWS would mean that wages rise in a bid to attract EU workers – which would have an inevitable impact on retail prices, pushing them up by 5% or more. “It is an open question whether customers would accept a ‘British-grown’ premium for many fruit and vegetable lines,” said MAC chairman David Metcalf.
A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme has been in place for over 60 years, and is currently only open to Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. Defra estimates the total number of seasonal and casual workers in UK agriculture is 67,000.