Fresh produce growers fear government plans to reform immigration controls could leave them short-handed at harvest.
A Home Office consultation, Making Migration Work for Britain, proposes the introduction of a selective points-based system for would-be migrants to ensure that immigration policy meets economic requirements.
But the National Farmers’ Union has warned that the proposal fails to take account of the horticulture sector’s need for low-skilled workers.
And it is worried it could spell the end of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which makes it easier for growers to bring in non-EU migrant labour during busy
periods such as harvest time. Traditionally, growers have made great use of workers from central and eastern Europe.
In theory, the accession of these countries to the EU makes it even easier to draw on this resource. But rising living standards could make people less willing to come to the UK to do low-paid manual work.
William White, director of the NFU’s south eastern office, which covers key growing counties including Sussex, Hampshire and Kent, said: “You can’t blame the government for trying to plug some of the holes in its rather leaky borders. But, as is often the case, the needs of our industry are simply overlooked.
“We have real doubts about government wisdom that says horticulture’s reliance on low-skilled pickers and processors can be met from new eastern European member states.
“As standards of living start to rise in these countries, the number of reliable inbound workers will slow.”
White said the NFU would work to persuade the Home Office that an easy means of bringing in non-EU migrant labour at harvest time should be retained. The consultation closes on November 7.
Richard Clarke