The UK government said today it will make 30,000 visas available for farm workers for next year as it prepares to leave the EU, up from 2,500 last year.
The news comes as ministers on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee have urged the UK government to intervene to prevent Brexit driving up food prices up as foreign workers leave Britain and also as it is being reported the UK may face Christmas food shortages after several European countries, crucially France, banned travel from the UK.
The Seasonal Workers Pilot, launched in 2019, has been extended and expanded for an additional year with 30,000 visas available for those wanting to come and work on UK farms for a period of up to six months.
The 2019 pilot allowed for farmers to employ up to 2,500 non-EU migrant workers for seasonal work. It was designed to test the effectiveness of the UK’s immigration system at supporting UK growers during peak production periods, whilst maintaining robust immigration control, and ensuring the welfare of participating migrant workers.
It was also meant to provide a source of labour for the UK’s fruit and vegetable growers helping to make sure that what the UK grows “gets onto our supermarket shelves,” the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said in a statement.
Chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, said “we are determined to support our farming sector as we leave the EU, and to reduce the food miles of food in our shops as part of our wider commitment to the environment.”
The expansion of the scheme follows a long period of working with the National Farmers Unions (NFU) and the Association of Labour Providers.
“The workers will play a vital role in helping horticulture growers pick and package their produce in 2021, whilst reducing their reliance on migrant labour as we exit the EU,” DEFRA’s statement added.
DEFRA said it will simultaneously build on this year’s Pick for Britain campaign and actively promote the recruitment and retention of domestic seasonal workers in 2021.
Alongside the Seasonal Workers Pilot, DEFRA will also lead a review into automation in horticulture, to begin in early 2021. The review will report on ways to increase automation in the sector and meet the government’s aim of reducing the need for migrant seasonal labour.
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said “the government is sending a clear message that it is important for Britain to be able to produce its own fruit and veg, which has huge potential for growth.”
Meanwhile a raft of countries across the world, not just Europe, that have put in bans from flights or travel from the UK were responding to prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that London, the Southeast, and East England would be in Tier 4 lockdown due to fears over a new variant of the coronavirus, which could be 70% more infectious.
This has led to worries about food shortages. Sainsbury's (SBRY.L) went as far as to say that fresh fruit and vegetable shortages could happen within days.
The NFU said it is “working hard to understand what the implications are, if any, on UK farmers, after France closed off its borders with the UK to thwart the spread of the new strain of COVID-19.”
To complicate matters further, the end of the transition period for the UK to exit the EU is fast approaching and a report from earlier this year said UK shops could face shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables next year because of a “perfect storm” of Brexit immigration reforms and border checks.
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