The chair of the Migration Advisory Committee has said that UK farmers should no longer get “privileged” access to low-skilled and low-paid workers from the EU after Brexit.
MAC chair Alan Manning said that not giving preferential treatment to EU workers in any new visa regime would not be “the end of the earth” for the UK economy. He did concede, however, that fruit and vegetable growers would probably “go backwards”.
His comments, to the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee in the House of Lords yesterday, follow the publication of MAC’s report on post-Brexit migration to the government in September.
The report recommended that highly skilled workers – whether from the EU or outside the European Economic Area – should be favoured over lower-skilled and lower-paid recruits.
Manning said that the rules, which require employees to earn more than £30,000 a year to get a visa – could be relaxed for a “tiny” number of highly-skilled but low-paid individuals, such as musicians or dancers.
He added: “Most of them are not musicians, these are people working in warehouses and food manufacturing, in hospitality and so on.
“Our view would be they have had a tailwind since 2004, which those sectors would understandably want to continue, but it’s not necessarily clear that that is in the interests of the wider economy and society.”
However, he conceded that seasonal agricultural workers were a special case, as 99% of them hail from EU countries, according to the Office for National Statistics. He said there was “no realistic prospect” of this seasonal work being done by British people.
Last month the government launched a pilot scheme for UK fruit and vegetable growers to recruit non-EU migrants as seasonal workers, offering up to 2,500 workers a year a visa for up to six months. The initiative will last between spring 2019 and December 2020.
Manning added that not giving agricultural employers “privileged access to labour” could be a way to boost productivity in the sector.
“That really wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole. Obviously the NFU [National Farmers Union] are not going to be very enthusiastic about it.”
MAC has also recommended that UK food producers pay a higher minimum wage, or face higher charges to employ foreign workers, in a bid to increase productivity.