4.During our inquiry we heard from a wide variety of witnesses representing various agricultural and horticultural employers who relied on a mix of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labour. They were unanimous in reporting that their businesses had long struggled to find sufficient labour to meet their needs, either from UK or overseas sources. They considered that these problems had worsened since June 2016 following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
5.A core problem for the sector is its difficulties in attracting UK staff. These difficulties date back many years. Many different reasons were put forward for this including a perception that work in agriculture involved “unsociable hours, hard work and rural locations”, a belief that agricultural work was low-paid, and the fact that agriculture and horticultural workers are needed in rural areas whilst the concentration of potential employees is in urban areas. Ultimately, despite efforts to entice UK workers to their sector, employers told us repeatedly that UK workers “did not want the work”.
6.As a result of difficulties in recruiting UK workers, the agriculture and horticulture sector has relied on foreign workers, primarily from other EU countries. Around 20% of all regular full-time staff in agriculture are thought to be migrant labour, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria (the ‘EU2’ countries). In some sectors this reliance is much greater. As indicative examples, 58% of members of the National Pig Association employ at least one migrant worker, and 63% of all staff employed by members of the British Meat Processors Association are from other EU countries (mainly those of Central and Eastern Europe).
7.In addition, this regular full-time workforce is supplemented by seasonal migrant workers performing both unskilled and, increasingly, skilled roles. No accurate figures exist of exactly how many seasonal workers are migrants to the UK but Chris Chinn of Cobrey Farms, a large fruit and vegetable grower in south Herefordshire, told us that 94% of his seasonally employed staff, around 950 people, were from the EU2 countries. Similarly, David Camp of the Association of Labour Providers estimated that 90–95% of the seasonal workers his members sourced for work in food processing and agriculture were from other EU countries, mainly Romania and Bulgaria. A best guess estimate is that there are around 75,000 temporary migrant workers employed in UK agriculture and horticulture. The NFU noted that this estimate is below the sector’s annual ‘need’ of 80,000 seasonal workers and further below the expected demand of 95,000 by 2021. As a result, even before the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the sector was still keen for the Government to take action to increase the supply of seasonal workers through, for example, the encouragement of migrant workers from non-EU countries. Witnesses noted that the lack of labour was already impacting their businesses growth and without a labour supply the industry would go elsewhere, “If you cannot get the labour in this country, the production will go to where the labour is”.
8.The sector’s shortfall in temporary labour has been exacerbated by recent events and foreign labour is proving harder to source. Many reasons were posited for this including: changes in the value of sterling; increased living standards in Eastern Europe (the main source of foreign labour); uncertainty created by Brexit; the desirability of work in other growth sectors such as construction and hospitality; and a feeling among foreign workers of “not being welcome”. Employers told us that when recruiting in Romania and Bulgaria previously they had needed to speak to three people to recruit one member of staff, now they were having to speak to eight. Those staff that could be recruited, moreover, tended to be of lower quality with poorer language skills, imposing additional difficulties for businesses.
9.We put these concerns to Ministers. In response they suggested that the issues raised with us had been exaggerated and based on press reports of “anecdotal stories”. Both Ministers quoted statistics which questioned whether there was any shortage of labour or any difficulties in recruiting staff from the EU2 countries. According to Robert Goodwill:
The most recent labour market stats, which came out recently for the year ending 2016, show that … Bulgaria and Romania, which are the two countries from which large numbers of people come here, we have seen a year-on-year increase of 82,000 workers; we have seen an increase from 204,000 at the end of 2015 to 286,000 at the end of 2016.
As a result the Government was confident that sufficient numbers of foreign workers were entering the country to make-up the agriculture sector’s shortfall in available seasonal staff as the ‘supply’ of 286,000 Bulgarian and Romanian workers (not including migration from other sources) dwarfed the sector’s demand of 80,000. Mr Goodwill went further saying that, “we do not have a problem this year”. Both Ministers stressed that in the short-term the sector should face no additional difficulties while the UK remained in the EU:
Certainly, to date, there is no suggestion that there is a problem … until we leave the European Union, we still have free movement of people and people are still able to come here. Nothing has changed.
10.We were surprised by these marked differences between the evidence we had previously heard and that provided by the Government. We sought further information from our previous witnesses on whether the Ministers’ evidence coincided with their experiences ‘on the ground’. This supplementary evidence, which we have published on our website, was generally critical of the Minsters’ statements. It was noted that the statistics quoted were merely of the total number of migrants and were not industry-specific and did not include seasonal workers; one witness highlighted that the Government’s reliance on citing the total number of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania was largely incidental as, “much of the issue we [employers] face is not quantity but quality”.
11.The weight of evidence from a range of agricultural and horticultural businesses indicates that their sectors are facing considerable difficulties in recruiting and retaining labour. We do not share the confidence of the Government that the sector does not have a problem: on the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.
12.We are concerned that the industry has such different experiences to those reported by the Government. It is apparent that the statistics used by the Government are unable to provide a proper indication of agriculture’s labour needs. These statistics and their utility for measuring supply of, and demand for, seasonal labour must be reviewed by the end of 2017 to give the sector confidence in the adequacy of the official data on which employment and immigration policies will be based for the period after the UK leaves the EU.
4 Q17 and Q18
5 See for example: Q20
21 Q230 and Q214
26 Supplementary evidence from the NFU (LSH0034) paragraph 2.1
27 Supplementary evidence from HOPS Labour Solutions (LSH0029)
25 April 2017