British farmers should be able to recruit a sufficient number of seasonal workers in the first one to two years after working restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted, according to evidence gathered by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).
But in its latest report, the government’s independent advisory body on migration issues found the horticultural sector could face a lack of available seasonal migrant labour in the medium to long term.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allows an annual quota of 21,250 Bulgarian and Romanian workers to enter the UK for a maximum period of six months and accounts for one-third of Britain’s seasonal agricultural labour.
It will close at the end of 2013 when A2 nationals gain free access to the European labour market and the UK transitional controls on these Eastern European nationals are lifted.
The MAC found that the British horticulture sector may contract if farmers fail to find sufficient workers to replace those currently employed through the SAWS.
Evidence suggests that any labour shortage could lead to an increase in labour costs and, in turn, prompt a rise in prices by growers for supermarkets and consumers. The report found retailers may then decide to buy cheaper foreign imports, leading to job losses in geographical areas where horticulture is concentrated.
The MAC said the government may wish to consider proposals for a replacement SAWS that targets workers from non-EU countries – in particular those from countries which have a high number of agricultural students such as Ukraine. Many other western countries rely on migrant labour for seasonal agricultural work.
The Committee also warned that uncertainty on whether or not the current scheme will be replaced may also delay major investment decisions in the horticulture sector.
Chair of the MAC, Professor David Metcalf CBE, said:
‘Growers, operators and workers told us that the labour supply from Bulgaria and Romania will not immediately dry up following the closure of SAWS – but there could be long-term implications which need to be addressed.
If growers cannot get the required labour, evidence suggests that a replacement SAWS would help horticulture thrive in the long run, but it is ultimately for the Government to decide if this sector is a priority.
The current scheme is well managed and benefits UK growers, migrant workers and consumers in the UK while not putting British workers at a disadvantage. It is also well regulated and keeps long-term migration down due to the high return rate of workers to their home country.’
The MAC found the closure of the Sectors Based Scheme, which is open to an annual quota of 3,500 A2 workers in the meat and fish processing and mushroom growing industry, would have a minimal impact as is it is currently significantly underused by the sector.