The LSE Brexit blog recently published a piece by Dr Richard Byrne, lecturer in food security at Harper Adams University, discussing why the shortage of migrant labour is already a reality for UK farms, why it was ignored as an issue in the referendum debate, and the ramifications this will have for food security and revenues in the farming sector.
Dr Byrne writes that ‘during the referendum campaign, much of the discussion about agriculture focused on subsidies, imports and a replacement (if any) for the Common Agricultural Policy. Indeed, the only proper analysis of the impact on agricultural labour came after the referendum, with a House of Commons Briefing paper (which was largely ignored). The considered political view was that the UK would simply produce more of its own food in response to any tariffs or barriers to imports’.
However, Dr Byrne continues, ‘since Article 50 was triggered there has been a steady flow of industry reports and media articles about the question of labour. The Observer food critic Jay Rayner recently drew attention to the issue of fruit rotting in orchards and crops going unpicked. Like many production-focused industries, UK agriculture is heavily dependent on migrant labour and has been for years, with some 75,000 seasonal workers coming from EU countries’.
Government surveys from 2016 estimated that 27,000 EU nationals worked directly in agriculture and around 116,000 in the food processing sector. Dr Byrne notes that contrary to common misconceptions, agriculture is still a long way from be automated and mechanised. Indeed, the entire fruit and flower industry depends on mostly migrant workers whose skills – ‘picking […] strawberries, raspberries and asparagus […] at speed, with care and choosing the ones which meets production specifications’ – are more difficult to come by than is usually recognised in the dismissive expression ‘unskilled labour’.
Dr Byrne concludes: ‘What the [farming] industry requires is a surety of labour supply. Growers generally plant to contract, and need to know they will have adequate labour to fulfill that contract without incurring penalties. Labour is now becoming more expensive as the number of applicants declines, and after some 20 years of reliance on migrant labour even higher wages are failing to attract the interest of UK citizens. A sensible solution for the seasonal labour issue would be a scheme that allowed staff to enter the UK for a period to work in a specific sector. However, this would need to be designed to reflect the flexibility of the current situation, where staff often move employer if the crop is picked early, lost or a different employer offers higher wages. This, though, does not fix the issue of the decrease in the value of the pound, so wages would have to rise with a concomitant impact on food prices.
To fix migrant seasonal labour to one employer would not be very attractive and might lead to exploitation. Indeed, there is concern within the industry and the wider retail sector that the decline in labour availability may lead to increases in the use of forced labour (modern slavery) or the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Both have already been seen, and prosecuted, on UK farms’.