Immigration schemes for the food and farming sector need to be revised to immediately address the lack of workers caused by Brexit and Covid-19, MPs have said.
The number of vacancies in the sector in August 2021 was estimated to be 500,000 out of 4.1 million roles, which has threatened food security, animal welfare, and the mental health of workers, according to the environment, food and rural affairs committee.
The pig farming sector was particularly badly affected, the committee heard, with 35,000 pigs being culled due to a lack of butchers.
Committee chair Neil Parish said: “In 2021 farmers faced an extraordinary situation – crops were left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers. This has serious implications for the wellbeing of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future.
“While some of the reforms put forward by government have helped in the short term, and we agreed that we must look to expand the domestic workforce – this won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it must use the powers available – including over immigration policy – to support the sector. Otherwise we will export our food production and import more of our food.”
The committee’s report, Labour shortages in the food and farming sector, states that some aspects of the UK’s immigration system must be overhauled to allow farmers to plug gaps in their workforce when needed.
It says the government did not acknowledge concerns about the farming staff shortage early enough in 2021, noting that it should not have waited for the data before taking action.
“[Government] should have had contingency plans to mitigate the fairly obvious risks and developed specific measures far sooner in response to first-hand accounts being provided by the sector. The whole of government needs a step change in how it engages with industry, taking seriously the concerns they raise and acting promptly on them,” the report says.
The seasonal workers pilot should be made a permanent scheme, the report says, and the government should commit to announcing the number of visas that will be available on a rolling five-year basis.
Crops were left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers. This has serious implications for the wellbeing of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future.” – Neil Parish MP, chair of the environment, food and rural affairs committee
It indicates that the UK immigration system’s “blanket approach to the English language requirement” is hampering access to workers from overseas, but acknowledges that workers “should have a reasonable understanding of English to allow them to communicate at work, integrate into their new communities, protect them from exploitation, and ensure health and safety at work”.
It claims the temporary short-term visa schemes for poultry workers, pork butchers and HGV drivers were “seriously deficient” and implemented too late, with many workers unable to arrive in time to help the sector prepare for Christmas.
“The schemes were not attractive due to the short notice and the very limited periods of time workers were allowed to work in the UK. We are therefore not surprised that the number of successful applicants was far below the number of visas available,” the report says.
“The government would be wrong to conclude the relatively low take-up meant that the sector’s concerns over labour shortages were exaggerated.”
However, the committee agrees that the sector needs to shift its focus away from migrant workers and towards domestic staff, innovation and development.
“While not able to deliver results overnight, a greater focus on the development and deployment of technology combined with attractive educational and vocational training packages to attract British-based workers could reduce the sector’s dependence on overseas labour. It is vital that the government works with the sector to develop a sustainable labour plan to make the most of these opportunities and potential,” it says.
Recommendations made in the report also include:
- Making 10,000 additional visas available following the addition of the ornamental sector to the seasonal worker pilot scheme
- The immediate addition of the food and farming roles that were contained in the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) September 2021 recommendations to the shortage occupation list.
- The MAC using its power to initiate its own inquiries to review the labour needs of the food and farming sector
- Monthly updates on the seasonal labour market to create an evidence base for whether further visas should be issued
- Lowering the English language requirement to a “basic user” level (either the A2 or A1 scale) of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages for skilled worker visa roles in the food and farming sector
- A review of the operation and performance of the temporary visa schemes, drawing on “meaningful engagement” with the sector, by the end of July 2022.