ALP Press Release: Feeding the Nation: Act now to address impending labour shortages

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the challenges to the food supply chain from shortages of workers is drawing to a conclusion.

The Association of Labour Providers has previously submitted its position paper Labour Immigration Policy Pre and Post EU Exit – November 2016 and provided oral evidence to the Committee. The ALP has now submitted a further evidence based submission to the inquiry including a survey of labour provider members which found that:

  • 21% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source and supply sufficient workers for Summer 2017
  • 4 out of 10 client businesses have had to increase wage rates to attract workers
  • Over 1/3 of labour providers believe that the quality of labour is worse than 12 months ago as opposed to less than 1 in 10 who say that it is better
  • 2 out of 3 labour providers have had to invest more money and resources into sourcing workers thereby increasing the cost of labour
  • Over three quarters of labour providers believe that there will be insufficient or lower quality workers in 2017 compared to 2016

The final evidence session for the EFRA inquiry took place on 15 March.  In summary, the Government Ministers said that it wasn’t as bad as expected, fears were over-stated and that the sector would cope this year and going forward. Minister of State for Immigration at the Home Office, Robert Goodwill said, “Subsequently, the stats that have come through from the labour market and net migration figures show that some of those early stories have proved to be a bit of a scare story, based on specific people saying, “I am going because of the Brexit vote.” Looking at the labour market position now, we have not seen people being deterred from coming here.  Looking at the economic position in the rest of Europe, we still see very high unemployment levels, particularly youth unemployment levels, in many southern European Union countries, from which people have traditionally come here to carry out this migrant work.”

Figures from the Eurostat agency do not support this latter assertion.  The eurozone’s unemployment rate in February 2017 fell to 9.5% – the lowest since May 2009.  The “southern European Union countries” with the highest unemployment rates are Greece (23%) and Spain (18%).  Both countries use migrant workers to conduct seasonal agricultural work.  Neither country provides, nor has historically provided, statistically significant numbers of seasonal workers to the UK.  By contrast, the key labour sourcing countries for UK agricultural seasonal labour, Bulgaria and Romania have falling jobless rates at 6.7% and 5.4% respectively, both below the EU28 average.  The unemployment rate in Poland is lower still at 5.3% , whilst UK unemployment is 4.7% – the lowest level in 12 years. Europe’s top economies are competitors for EU migrant workers. Of these, the country with the largest GDP, Germany has one of the lowest eurozone jobless rate at 3.9%.

UK retailers, growers, labour providers, regulators and trade associations have worked in partnership over many years to develop an industry sector comprised of a legal workforce provided with employment rights, striving to drive out hidden exploitation, with improved standards of accommodation, with high rates of returners and increased productivity and efficiency.

The UK Government should not wait for labour supply to the UK horticultural sector to fail (with the devastating impact this will have on farmers and other businesses and to the availability of food on supermarket shelves) before rushing in a hasty and ill-thought through Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. DEFRA should be working with the Home Office now to design a model Seasonal Workers’ Permit Based Quota Scheme.  Whether introduced in 2018 or 2019 such a scheme will be needed in the foreseeable future.  ALP and other industry trade bodies will support the government in designing a model scheme fit for the future.