The British Growers Association (BGA) has called for a massive expansion of the Government’s seasonal agricultural workers pilot after the coronavirus pandemic ‘shelved’ the Home Office’s original plans.
Jack Ward, chief executive of the BGA, told Farmers Guardian preparations for the pilot scheme, which would have allowed 10,000 non-EU workers to enter the UK to help pick and pack fresh produce, had been left in tatters because employees could not get their visas or catch flights.
Ministers had already agreed to increase the pilot from 2,500 workers to 10,000 in February this year, after industry bodies warned of a serious labour shortage.
Now the BGA is calling for the scheme to cover at least 25,000 workers from this autumn.
Mr Ward said: “In the normal course of events, the Government wants to shutdown freedom of movement from January 2021, so 2020 should have been a pre-shutdown trial year for the fresh produce industry, to see how a new system might work in a post-Brexit world, including the seasonal workers pilot scheme.
“In reality, what has happened is we have had complete chaos. All of the plans we have made from last autumn to this spring have had go through a 180-degree u-turn and the pilot scheme, which was supposed to give insight into how a new scheme would work, has effectively been shelved because people cannot get visas or flights.
“What should have been year of preparation, looking at how we operate alternative recruitment schemes alongside the seasonal workers pilot, has been thrown into confusion.
“We are potentially heading into 2021 with no concrete base from which to work. We have got no reliable experience, evidence or data on which to base any rational judgements.”
Mr Ward was optimistic that the Pick For Britain campaign launched by the Government to encourage British workers to get on farm would help in the short-term, but warned longer term, furloughed employees would return to their old jobs.
“That is what is creating nervousness further down the line, because the fresh produce season will not tail off until October,” he said.
“We are now only at the start of it and already the Government is talking about a recovery strategy. People will be returning to work possibly in the next few days and growers are very mindful of that.”