Agriculture is very important to the British economy, and fruit and vegetable production plays an important role in this. Soft fruit production in the UK has increased by 130% in the last 20 years. The fruit and vegetable sector relies heavily on seasonal labour during peak production periods, and much of this seasonal labour comes from the EU, thanks to the free movement of people.
Now, there is growing concern from the agricultural sector about the potential for significant shortages in seasonal labour as a consequence of Brexit. The Government has promised a significant reduction in the number of unskilled EU workers coming to the UK after Brexit, with high-skilled workers being given priority. The National Farmers' Union has said there are already reports of a slowdown in workers coming from the EU, a shortfall of 10% so far this year. British Summer Fruits has reported shortages in workers of between 10% and 20%.
This shortage in workers raises fears that labour costs will continue to increase, exacerbated by reports this summer of fruit and vegetables being left unpicked and going to waste due to insufficient available labour.
A pilot scheme announced on 6 September 2018 by the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will provide temporary visas of up to six months to migrant workers following Brexit. This will enable the sector to employ additional workers during peak times of the year in an effort to reduce labour shortages. The number of visas will be restricted to up to 2,500 workers per year, coming from outside the EU.
According to mondaq.com¸the pilot will operate between spring 2019 and December 2020. It will be monitored by the Home Office and DEFRA throughout the period, and any evidence that migrant workers are not returning to their home countries once their visas expire could result in abandonment of the scheme.