EU Exit Perspectives: Labour challenges in spotlight once more

Friday, 22 January 2021

With free movement of labour ending on 31 December 2020, food and farming sectors, particularly horticulture, could be facing a huge challenge to source labour in the coming months. Our head of strategic insight, David Swales, explores the potential pitfalls and what actions businesses can take.

On a cold January day in the midst of a pandemic, sourcing labour for harvest may not currently be growers’ most pressing concern but this could prove a major challenge for horticulture, as well as the wider industry, now we have left the EU.

Free movement labour between the UK and the EU ended on 31 December, leaving the industry exposed to a lack of a viable workforce. In a normal year we’d expect about 95 per cent plus of the 60-70,000 seasonal, casual and gang labour jobs across agriculture and horticulture to be filled by EU nationals. High numbers are also found in the food manufacturing sector, with migrant workers making up about 40 per cent of the workforce.

These roles, which range from livestock slaughter to fruit, potato and vegetable picking and packing, have historically been snubbed by UK nationals, viewed as physically demanding, unsociable or dirty.

This changed last year with the COVID-19 pandemic, which in some respects gave many businesses a dry run at recruiting seasonal roles with little or no access to migrant labour. Travel restrictions meant many EU nationals were unwilling or unable to take jobs in the UK, causing a lack of availability of workers at a critical time. Schemes like Pick For Britain aimed to recruit UK nationals to jobs they may have previously rejected, aided by furlough and rising unemployment caused by COVID-19. Our labour barometer showed that between 71 and 86 per cent of horticulture businesses had been able to source the labour they needed over the summer. While this might suggest the industry was successful in attracting new entrants, we heard anecdotally, turnover rates were high.

Part of the problem is that many roles are what we would define within industry as skilled, with people returning year on year. But these fall foul of the the new points-based system the Government has introduced to allow migrant workers into the country, with fewer qualifications and lower salary brackets making it difficult to achieve the 70 points required. Extra points can be found for certain occupations but the list is limited, with vets, veterinary nurses, butchers and agricultural engineers being a handful of relevance to our farming sector.

That leaves a lot of horticulture growers, as well as other parts of the industry like abattoirs for example, with limited options. The Government has recognised this to some extent with a Seasonal Workers Pilot announced for 2021, with an increased quota of 30,000, though it admits there will still be a shortfall.

In the coming months, we expect the industry to once again come together to meet the labour challenge, as it did so swiftly during the first wave of the pandemic. But for now, individual businesses traditionally reliant on migrant labour can take a number of steps to prepare. First and foremost, understand the new rules by consulting government guidance, consider how you might attract and recruit UK nationals, look at ways of holding on to existing staff and optimise labour use to improve efficiency. With long nights and lockdown set to go on for a while yet, now is the perfect time to plan for the brighter days to come.

Read the full analysis.

Image of staff member David Swales

David Swales

Head of Strategic Insight