In their recent report, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (‘ICIBI’) recognised that “bringing foreign labour into the industry plays a pivotal role in the UK’s production of food and directly contributes to the country’s food security”.
In December 2020, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimated that UK-born workers made up only 1% of workers in the sector and that recruitment of resident workers was a significant challenge for the sector.
In 2019 the government launched the Seasonal Workers Pilot which has now been extended until 2024. In 2023, 45,000 visas will be available in horticulture, for the picking and harvesting of fruit, vegetables, and flowers. Some agricultural roles also fall under the Skilled Worker visa route. Between summer 2019 and 2022, just under 2400 people entered the sector with Skilled Worker visas.
The ICIBI has undertaken a full inspection of the operation of the immigration system as it relates to the agriculture sector and has found significant room for improvement in three key areas: compliance, communication and clarity of roles and responsibilities. The Inspector acknowledged that workers in the sector are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions and as such the government has a heightened responsibility to implement robust protective mechanisms and to support operators who promote good working practices.
On compliance, the ICIBI found that the Home Office needed to raise its game to ensure that scheme operators were operating in accordance with guidance and in a manner which would adequately protect workers. The ICIBI recommended that the Home Office should publish the findings of its own overdue review of the Seasonal Worker route which should focus on identifying training needs for compliance officers, creating clear operating mandates, creating robust actions for operators where guidance is not followed and by ensuring that compliance visits are driven by intelligence.
The Home Office accepted this recommendation and confirmed the review would be completed by April 2023. They also confirmed that they would form a dedicated team to monitor and implement changes to the operational elements of the compliance regime including delivering new guidance, training, developing specialist staff and making better use of intelligence.
During interviews with stakeholders the ICIBI found that communication between the Home Office and stakeholders was less than adequate. Several contributors described communication as being “one-way” with the Home Office delivering information but being unwilling to listen, engage, or effectively collaborate with stakeholders. The Chief Inspector recommended that the Home Office publish a communications and engagement roadmap tailored specifically for the agriculture sector. The Home Office confirmed they would comply with this recommendation and would produce a roadmap by April 2023.
The last key finding of the inspection was that there was a lack of clarity on roles and responsibility within Government in relation to the Seasonal Worker route. The ICIBI recommended that the Home Office produce a reference document to clarify where responsibilities and duties for the Seasonal Worker route fall within government, devolved administrations, and local authorities. The Home Office also accepted this final recommendation, agreeing to prepare the recommended document by July 2023.
The inspection report also highlights what many businesses in the agriculture sector have identified as a key issue for the sector. When announcing the Seasonal Workers Pilot, the government insisted that the scheme would only be temporary and that the sector would have to decrease its reliance on labour from overseas by recruiting from the resident labour market and by automating. Many operators submit that there simply is not an available resident labour force who is willing to undertake work in the sector, either because of work conditions, the often-remote geographical location of work and/or the seasonality of work, and that the government underestimates the efforts which organisations have gone to to recruit locally.
They also argue that automation which would replace sufficient numbers of workers to reduce reliance on a migrant workforce is out of many operators grasp and much further in the future than the government appreciates. The report found that the “general consensus among famers and sector representative organisations was that the mass-adaption of automation was “decades away””. The ‘Automation in horticulture review’ recently stated that a “long-term seasonal workers scheme would help to stabilise workforce pressures in the sector, helping growers to better evaluate their labour needs over time and incentivising long-term capital investments in automation technology”.
As such, while welcoming the changes the Home Office has conceded to make, operators also want to see an increase in the numbers of available visas issued annually, an increase in the length of each visa from six months to at least a year and an assurance that the scheme will be in place beyond 2024. Without these assurances, operators are struggling to plan in the long term and reluctant to invest when the future is uncertain.