British ministers extended some relief to agriculture and the fresh produce industry by allowing to temporary workers to remain in the UK through 2024, though it will begin putting limits on the “reliance on foreign labour.”
Affected by Brexit and COVID-19, worker shortages led to food waste and delivery issues in 2019 and early on during the pandemic, impacting the entire food supply chain. Workers from non-European Union countries eventually were given the go-ahead to assist, but the process in getting them visas was slow.
There is still major concern about further labour shortages heading into next year, even with the UK government’s allowance for 30,000 visas to be issued for 2022 and the potential for an additional 10,000 to be added. There is clear intent to reduce that number after next year.
“The government has given Scotland’s fruit and veg industry deeply disappointing news about the continuation of the seasonal workers scheme,” NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy said. “Keeping the number of visas for 2022 at 30,000, with the potential to increase to 40,000 is the direction the scheme should be going and should have gone further. However, government plans to then start tapering the scheme down from 2023 shows a complete disconnect from the industry.”
In Scotland, businesses that could make those temporary six-month hires weren’t seeing much interest. Kennedy noted that for every 100 job offers made, only a handful of individuals were willing to follow through. The lack of further assistance and moving off of that “static” number could result in far less fruits, vegetables and other products in being harvested and delivered. Kennedy and others had hoped for those visa numbers to increase to just over 55,000.
In addition, government has told industry officials it wants businesses to boost the pay of workers in the short term, which might partly solve the labour problem but further affect bottom lines.
Still, the news provided some comfort to the industry. “This is positive news for the thousands of fruit, veg and flower growers that rely on essential seasonal workers to help pick, pack and grade our iconic fresh produce,” NFU’s vice president Tom Bradshaw said.