The UK government has announced that 30,000 seasonal worker visas will be made available for 2021, enabling EU and non-EU workers to enter Britain to help pick and pack fruit and vegetables. The number will treble the amount of seasonal worker visas made available in 2020.
The UK seasonal worker visa program was initially launched as a pilot in 2019, and has now been extended by a further 12 months. The extension will apply to EU and non-EU workers once freedom of movement from the European mainland ends on 1 January 2021.
The UK government’s announcement comes following a challenging harvest season in 2020, with farmers fearing that fruit and vegetables would be left to rot in fields as the industry struggled to attract worker numbers.
Pick for Britain
In the summer, a Pick for Britain campaign attracted around 8,000 local workers, representing 11% of the total workforce, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). The increase in local pickers represented a massive increase on the 1% of pickers and packers who were UK citizens in 2019.
Vice President of the NFU, Tom Bradshaw, said: “It’s been a difficult harvest season this year with higher recruitment costs and a higher turnover of staff.”
Amid the struggles, the government has increased UK visa availability for migrant seasonal workers and plans to actively promote the recruitment and retention of domestic seasonal workers in 2021.
However, the extension of the seasonal worker immigration scheme means that farms can continue to hire overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months.
The extension comes following an inquiry by the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) trade body, which found that 70% of food growers and manufacturers expected to struggle to hire lower skilled workers in the New Year.
The Chief Executive of the ALP, David Camp, said: “The industry has made a strong case that, where the evidence demonstrates, there should be limited immigration of key workers into essential sectors.”
Bradshaw said that the extension of the seasonal worker visa program is welcomed and is ‘positive news’, not only for the UK’s growers, but for shoppers who want to enjoy fresh produce that’s homegrown.
“By expanding the seasonal workers’ pilot, the government is sending a clear message that it is important for Britain to be able to produce its own fruit and veg, which has huge potential for growth. This scheme will allow growers to employ seasonal workers at key times to pick a wide variety of fresh produce on British farms,” Bradshaw said.
The extension of the seasonal worker visa program came shortly after a cross-party group of MPs warned that food prices in the UK could rise if the government did not ‘change course’ with its approach to the post-Brexit UK immigration system.
According to an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) inquiry into labour in the food supply chain ‘getting food businesses to move away from migrant workers will take time’ and insisted on a more transitional shift away from migrant labour rather than a hard stop when freedom of movement rights end.
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