UK growers are fuming after the government said it would not replace SAWS – the scheme that ensured an adequate supply of Romanian and Bulgarian seasonal workers for the UK horticulture industry.
Under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, UK fresh produce growers could employ 21,250 migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months at a time.
SAWS specified that workers must be provided with accommodation and paid the agricultural minimum wage.
In a written ministerial statement issued this morning, Mark Harper, minister of state for immigration, said that at a time of unemployment there should be sufficient workers from within the UK and EU to meet the labour demands of the horticulture sector.
“We do not think that the characteristics of the horticulture sector are so different from those in other employment sectors”
“We do not think that the characteristics of the horticulture sector, such as its seasonality and dependence on readily available workers to be deployed at short notice, are so different from those in other employment sectors as to merit special treatment from a migration policy perspective,” he said.
The news is a blow to the UK’s £3.7bn fresh-produce sector, which employs around one-third of its seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania.
The government previously announced it was scrapping SAWS but grower bodies including the NFU had been lobbying hard for a replacement scheme.
NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond predicted the NFU’s grower members would be “rightly outraged” by the government’s decision. “Make no mistake, this will cause a contraction of the British horticulture sector, one which is already suffering from falling self-sufficiency levels.”
The decision contradicted prime minister David Cameron’s belief that farmers were the backbone of Britain, he added.
Decision ‘at odds’
The British Growers Association (BGA) added it was seeking an urgent meeting with ministers to understand how the government intended to identify and recruit suitable workers from the available labour market.
“The decision not to establish a replacement scheme was at odds with the advice of the government’s own independent Migration Advisory Committee, which warned earlier this year that without SAWS, the UK horticulture sector could face contraction, increased imports and 10-15% higher fresh produce prices,” said BGA chief executive James Hallett.
“The decision not to establish a replacement scheme was at odds with the advice of the government’s own independent Migration Advisory Committee”
In his statement, Harper said that from January next year growers would have unrestricted access to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals after transitional labour market controls were lifted.
However, growers forecast they will lose out in terms of recruitment to other UK sectors, such as hospitality and construction. “Workers view other industries as perhaps a little easier; much of our work is outside,” said Hallett.
Harper said the Department for Work and Pensions had already been helping unemployed UK residents to apply for, train and secure jobs on arable farms, which had shown some “encouraging results”.
The government has also announced it will not replace the food processing industry’s Sector Based Scheme, but claimed it was not heavily used.