James Clark, Director of Policy and Communications at the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), explains why modest and practical solutions to overseas temporary labour rules will make a significant and positive difference to the Government’s environmental plans to ‘green the economy’.
Plants and trees play a huge role in our society. They improve our air quality, prevent floods and reduce heat in urban areas by providing shade. They contribute to positive mental and physical wellbeing.
We’ve seen a record number of people re-connecting with nature, re-connecting with their gardens and balconies, enjoying shared green spaces together. They’ve played a symbolic role at special occasions for hundreds of years. Plants and trees undeniably brighten our lives.
UK supply chain
All of this is delivered by a UK horticultural industry. It underpins almost half of the goals set out in the Government’s 25-year environment plan. It’s the ‘original green economy’. It’s a £28bn-value industry, supporting over 670,000 jobs across the country.
A recent industry report, ‘Unlocking Green Growth’ found that there’s a potential £13bn boost to the economy by 2030 from horticulture and landscaping socio-economic growth.
There is a whole British supply chain at work and within this are British plant and tree nurseries. They produce a whopping £1.6bn-worth of plants and trees a year, supporting over 31,000 jobs.
Present in over 380 parliamentary constituencies across the UK, plant and tree nurseries are key employers in many, often rural, communities up and down the country.
They’re providing plants and trees all year round to your local retailers, online, your local authority’s parks and streets, new housing and commercial developments and to landscapers for that project you were itching to get done in the garden.
It’s an industry of small and medium sized businesses – often independent, multi-generation, family-run businesses. It’s an industry that the UK can be proud of.
With post-Brexit opportunities to increase UK tree and plant production, we need the people to help make Britain’s horticulture industry grow. 30% of the total nursery workforce are temporary workers. They’re a crucial part of the operations.
As an industry we are doing everything we can to attract and retain local, temporary workers to our industry.
HTA members have increased wages, provide flexible shifts, offer training, work with the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as teaming up with the Prison Service and others.
The shortage of seasonal labour
Nonetheless, we’re still short of the seasonal workforce we need. HTA research has found that the industry is c3,000 workers (1,200 full time equivalents) short of temporary, seasonal workers.
"We need a change in policy on seasonal workers now."
We have three pragmatic and practical policy solutions:
Include plants and tree (‘ornamental’ horticulture) production in the seasonal workers scheme next year. The current scheme is only for edible horticulture. Extending it to plant and tree nurseries feels logical and efficient - many edible and plant or tree nurseries are literally across the road from each other. Many will be supplied with the same seasonal worker agencies. It’s arbitrary to sub-divide an industry.
Extend the current seasonal workers scheme to ensure ornamental horticulture’s needs are adequately met. Increasing the current numbers by 10% is all that is needed. The numbers could be reduced over time as local recruitment and automation implementation makes a difference.
For the visa scheme to be extended by three months to nine months. This will allow flower picking, such as daffodils (early Spring) and tree production (Autumn) to be included. The current six-month scheme misses out these sectors.
The impacts of a shortage of labour
The reasons for this change are stark.
85% of HTA grower members who reported a labour shortage say it impacted their ability to produce more plants and trees this year.
A grower who produces daffodil bulbs said that they would usually expect to employ 200 pickers in the Spring. This year they were only able to recruit 25 seasonal workers. This has meant lost sales, particularly in export markets.
52% of growers said that the shortages are impacting their ability to deliver future business projects, such as enhanced tree production schemes.
Another grower told me they could produce two million more trees and hedges if they have an adequate number of seasonal staff (tree planting is a big part of the Government’s plans, but without the necessary supply, government targets are likely to be missed).
We know we need to do more as an industry as well. Introducing automation is one solution, but the high cost and commercialising automation for businesses, most of whom employ less than 10 full time employees, is a challenge at the moment.
Due to perceptions about the type of work and the industry, low levels of local unemployment (great result for the country, but reduces the workforce available), or geographical and transportation challenges of being located in rural areas, it is an on-going battle to recruit temporary labour. Our industry ‘Unlocking Green Growth’ strategy sets out what more we could be doing, but this will take time.
In the meantime, the need for policy change from government on overseas temporary workers, is now.
It’ll ensure we’re producing the plants and trees to help tackle climate change and meet the government’s net zero targets. It’ll rebalance our economy to sustainable, ‘green’ growth, allowing us to be more competitive internationally.
Time is of the essence. The time for decisions is now.