Government must double seasonal workers scheme for 2022, says Capper

The NFU is seeking government action to immediately double its Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme for UK horticulture, as worker shortages continue to hit fruit and vegetable farms.

Ali Capper, NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board chairwoman, said the government must expand the scheme from 30,000 visas this year to 60,000 to avoid a labour crisis on farms in 2022.

“In July, our peak month, we were 34% short of seasonal workers. That’s the highest it has ever been. It’s a proper crisis,” Ms Capper told the NFU Council meeting in Warwickshire on Tuesday (12 October).

The scheme was only recruiting 30,000 workers against a sector that needs 80,000, she noted.

Ms Capper, who grows fruit and hops on the Worcestershire/Herefordshire border, said she advertised for 70 workers through her local job centre – nine responded to the advert and only one person was still looking for a job when they got to interview stage. A week later, that person had found another job.

High anxiety levels

She has never known anxiety levels in the horticulture sector to be so high. “How can we plan our businesses for next year if we don’t know whether the scheme is permanent?” she asked.

“We don’t know whether the scheme will even be here in 2022. We don’t know what the numbers are. Pilot operators cannot even start recruitment for next year.”

Since the pandemic, about 1.3m EU workers have left the UK and returned home.

Ms Capper urged the government to also extend its 12-month Covid recovery visa scheme to cover horticulture to help the sector “get back on its feet”.

“We need more visas, more operators and we must have plants and flowers included in these schemes,” she added.

The horticulture sector is facing “unprecedented costs and inflation”, she explained, including energy price rises and a 10-15% and 40% increase in the cost of packaging and cardboard respectively.

Also, some glasshouse growers are talking about mothballing whole glasshouses next year because they cannot afford the costs to keep them going.

NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw said the government’s narrative of a “low skill, low wages” sector was completely unfair for those highly skilled workers working in the field.

Average pay in the horticulture sector is £10.22/hour, but most growers are now paying £12-£18/hour.

Home Office stance

But the Home Office has played down the chances of a rethink, pointing to the expansion this year of the current pilot scheme.

A government spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of seasonal labour in supporting a successful and effective agricultural and food sector.

“This year we expanded the agricultural Seasonal Workers Pilot to 30,000 visas for workers from across the globe to come to the UK for up to six months.

“However, the pilot is not designed to offset the sector continually. We encourage the sector to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options and wage increases, and to utilise the Find A Job website, where businesses can upload and manage their vacancies.”

Source : Farmers Weekly