Brexit and Agriculture in Northern Ireland Contents

4The agricultural workforce

151.In this chapter we consider the effect that Brexit might have on the supply of agricultural labour in Northern Ireland. We examine:

The agricultural workforce in Northern Ireland

152.The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is heavily reliant on labour sourced from outside the UK. The Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) estimates that around 48% of workers employed in the sector are non-UK EEA nationals. These workers are particularly important to the seasonal workforce, making up 91% of seasonal workers.293 Migrant workers make up a substantial part of the agricultural workforce in all regions of the UK. However, they are employed in different subsectors in Northern Ireland compared to other regions, reflecting the different structure of Northern Ireland agriculture. For example, the province’s fruit and vegetable sector is relatively small, but the mushroom sector employs a large number of pickers, the vast majority of whom are non-UK nationals. Northway Mushrooms told us that 95% of growers’ employees come from the EU-26 (EU countries excluding the Republic of Ireland). Northern Ireland’s beef and lamb industry relies heavily on migrant workers in the processing sector, where 60–70% of staff are non-UK EEA workers.294 The sector employs few staff from outside the EEA; NIFDA’s survey found that just 2% of agri-food employees were non-EEA nationals.295

153.We heard that migrants fill a variety of roles within agri-food. Witnesses challenged the idea that much of the work done by migrants was short-term and low-skilled. The UFU told us that migrants met labour needs across the “whole spectrum” of agricultural employment, including at managerial level.296 They also emphasised that many critical roles in agri-food were not seasonal but full-time, and that a solution was needed to ensure that the sector could retain a skilled permanent labour force.297 Elaine Shaw of Northway Mushrooms told us that they considered mushroom picking to be a “very skilled job,” explaining:

A picker has to make a very important decision that a machine potentially cannot make, whether to pick that mushroom or to leave it for another four hours, because another four hours will give another 10% or 20% weight, which gives a higher price and a higher yield.298

Northway told us that training a new member of staff took around three months, at a cost of between £500 and £1,000.299

154.Witnesses expressed concern that a shortage of workers could have serious consequences for agri-food businesses. NIMEA told us that the availability of workers from the accession countries after 2004 had enabled the industry to grow substantially, and that if the labour supply were to be constrained in the future it could reduce processing capacity.300 They said this could put Northern Ireland at a competitive disadvantage and leading to gradual decline in the sector.301 Thomas Douglas told us that the situation was similar in poultry processing, and that without access to foreign labour “processing plants will not be fit to operate.”302 Although many of Northern Ireland’s farms are smaller family farms and do not employ foreign labour directly, their businesses are closely linked to those in the processing sector and would be adversely affected by any constraints on processing capacity.

155.The British Veterinary Association also emphasised the importance of veterinary surgeons to agri-food operations—for example, in overseeing herd health and monitoring animal welfare in abattoirs—and highlighted that this workforce was heavily drawn from overseas. They estimated that 95% of the veterinary workforce in UK abattoirs graduated overseas, with most of these coming from the EU.303 Dr Simon Doherty of the BVA told us that there was likely to be an increased need for vets in Northern Ireland if regulatory divergence was such that risk-based checks were needed for produce crossing the border. He estimated that DAERA would need to more than double its veterinary capacity in order to meet the increased demand.304

156.There is some evidence that the agri-food sector has had difficulty filling seasonal vacancies since the EU referendum. A UK-wide survey carried out by the National Farmers Union found that 12.5% of seasonal horticultural vacancies were unfilled in 2017.305 We heard similar reports from representatives from the meat processing and mushrooms sectors, suggesting that difficulty filling vacancies is not confined to seasonal labour.306 Witnesses suggested a combination of factors had contributed to this, including a weakening of sterling making UK wages less attractive and uncertainty over the rights of EU citizens after Brexit.307 Witnesses were clear, however, that these shortfalls could not be attributed to Brexit alone but were a consequence of wider economic factors. For example, witnesses pointed out that economies in Eastern Europe—where many agricultural workers were drawn from—were improving and so there was less incentive for individuals in those countries to seek work elsewhere.308

157.The sector’s reliance on foreign labour is partly due to the difficulties it faces in finding workers locally. CBI Northern Ireland told us that firms in Northern Ireland felt “forced” to recruit from abroad due to local labour shortages.309 They pointed out that Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is low relative to the rest of the UK and that some localities have extremely low levels of unemployment, meaning there is simply not enough supply to meet the sector’s labour demands.310 We also heard that agricultural jobs were not popular among local people, as they often involved working unsociable hours and either living on-site or lengthy journeys to and from work.311 Thomas Douglas told us that trends in education policy had encouraged more people to pursue higher education, and that as a result fewer young people were inclined to take on manual roles in agriculture.312

Proposals for meeting demand for agricultural labour

158.There are a number of ways in which the agriculture sector might continue to meet its labour needs in the future, which we consider below.

Retaining access to the existing workforce

159.It is likely that, in the short to medium term, much of the sector’s demand for labour may be met by non-UK EEA nationals already working in Northern Ireland. The Government has said that EU citizens who arrive in the UK before the end of the transition period (31 December 2020) will be able to apply for settled status (if they have lived in the UK for five years or more) or pre-settled status (if they have lived in the UK for fewer than five years). Under this system, EU nationals who are currently working in Northern Ireland will be able to continue to do so. However, this would not help to meet demand for EEA seasonal workers, who are not habitually resident in Northern Ireland and therefore would not meet the criteria for settled or pre-settled status.

160.Witnesses told us that some of their employees did intend to settle in Northern Ireland for the long term.313 However, we also heard that other workers’ intention was to return to their home countries.314 If significant numbers do so, over time the current pool of EEA nationals working in agri-food in Northern Ireland will diminish and—assuming that demand for agricultural labour stays constant or grows—other workers will be needed to take their place.

Using immigration policy to meet demand for agricultural labour

161.It is likely that part of the UK’s future demand for labour in the agri-food sector will have to be met by new migrants. This demand could be met by migrants from either EU or non-EU countries. Adrian McGowan, a vegetable farmer from County Down, told us that in his view it did not matter to farmers where their employees came from; their interest was in the quality of work.315 Dr Mary Dobbs told us that there were policy options already available to the Government that could facilitate the hiring of workers from abroad, such as visa waiver schemes.316

162.Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector might look to recruit both seasonal and full-time labour from abroad. Dr Viviane Gravey told us that different policy instruments might be necessary to achieve these two aims, as the visa requirements for each type of worker would be different.317 Some witnesses proposed the introduction of a scheme for recruiting agricultural workers on a seasonal basis (which we look at in more detail below) but there was general agreement that this could only be part of the solution and that measures to enable the recruitment of full time staff were needed as well.318

163.Some of the roles for which the sector might look to employ foreign workers, such as butchers and veterinary surgeons, are skilled positions that are critical for agri-food businesses. We heard calls for such roles to be added to the Shortage Occupation List.319 Jobs on this list are not subject to the ordinary requirement for a Resident Labour Market Test, which requires an employer to demonstrate to UK Visas and Immigration that the job being offered cannot be filled by an EEA worker. The Minister told us that that vets are currently listed as a Shortage Occupation—however, the Department later clarified that this was not the case. Vets were removed from the list in November 2017 and are not currently listed.320

164.Sarah Baker of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told us that a further complication was that for some professions, such as mushroom pickers, workers may be highly skilled but do not necessarily hold formal qualifications. She said this made agriculture distinct from sectors where aptitude is most commonly demonstrated through formal qualifications, which are more easily included as a requirement for meeting immigration rules.321 Dr Viviane Gravey told us that some roles operated premises on both sides of the border and so would require workers to have the right to work in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.322

165.Several witnesses told us that they expected the number of migrant workers from Eastern Europe to diminish in the future, as economic conditions improved in those countries.323 We heard that there were several non-EEA countries from which Northern Ireland might employ suitable agricultural workers in the future. Elaine Shaw of Northway Mushrooms told us that the horticulture sector had employed significant numbers of workers from Ukraine under a previous scheme, which enabled migrants to work on a two-year permit which “worked very well.”324 She noted that the Republic of Ireland continued to encourage Ukrainian workers to work in the sector.325 Northway added that their members in the Republic employed workers from South East Asia (typically Thailand and the Philippines) and that these employees were adept at harvesting mushrooms.326 Ms Shaw told us that the Republic had recently introduced a permit scheme for non-EEA workers to allow around 750 workers to be recruited from outside the EEA.327

Agricultural workers schemes

166.Between 1945 and 2013, a Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS) operated in the UK to provide a route for employers to meet demand for agricultural labour. The rules of the scheme evolved over time to meet the changing needs of the sector: in its final form, which existed from 2008–2013, it allowed the fruit and vegetable growing sector to employ up to 21,250 workers per year from Romania and Bulgaria in low-skilled agricultural roles, each for a maximum of six months. Prior to 2008 the SAWS had been open to non-EEA nationals.328 The scheme has not operated since 2013, on the basis that the Government considers access to the EU labour market to be sufficient for meeting domestic labour requirements.

167.Some witnesses told us that some form of agricultural workers scheme would be needed to meet demand for agricultural labour in the future.329 However, we also heard that any new scheme need not replicate the SAWS, and that simply reinstating SAWS would not meet Northern Ireland’s labour demands.330 The UFU told us that they hoped the SAWS would be brought back, but noted that seasonal labour was only part of the issue and that routes for sourcing full-time and skilled labour would be needed as well.331 Adrian McGowan told us that the short-term nature of SAWS meant that farmers frequently had to train new staff, and that employees who were able to stay for longer terms could be better trained and therefore more productive.332 The Livestock and Meat Commission and Northway Mushrooms are among those who have suggested that a future scheme should look beyond seasonal workers and provide routes for securing full-time staff who have not already achieved settled status.333

168.The Government has said that it is open to the possibility of a new agricultural workers’ scheme, and it has specifically asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to consider the issue of seasonal labour.334 Defra’s submission to the MAC highlights the importance of seasonal workers to agriculture,335 and in February the Environment Secretary told the National Farmers Union’s annual conference that there were “compelling arguments for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.”336 In its final report, the MAC said that while it did not see a general need for a migrant worker scheme for low-skilled roles, a seasonal agricultural workers scheme was a “possible exception.”337

169.In September the Government announced that it would trial a new scheme for non-EU agricultural workers in 2019/2020, which would allow the sector to recruit up to 2,500 workers for up to six months at a time.338

Automation and mechanisation

170.One option available to the agriculture sector to reduce its reliance on migrant labour would be to invest in automating its processes to either supplement its existing labour force or reduce its demand for manual labour. Some sectors have had success with automation: Ian Duff of the Northern Ireland Stakeholder Potato Promotion Group told us that the potato industry had invested heavily in field machinery over the last 20 to 30 years, in part because of the difficulties in sourcing labour for what had previously been a very labour intensive sector.339 He told us that mechanisation had changed the structure of the industry:

In our case, what has happened has been a move to larger businesses. If you look at what it takes to grow and harvest, you are talking near £1 million maybe of capital investment. You can only do that at scale and we are now at the stage where I think it is 33 farms producing over 40% of the crop, so it has been concentrated so that they can invest in the technology to make it viable.340

171.The up-front investment costs required to introduce new technology were cited as a barrier to increased automation, particularly to smaller growers.341 Ian Duff and Adrian McGowan both noted that, while the potato industry had enjoyed some success with mechanising its operations, growers in Northern Ireland were not as well equipped as growers in the Republic where the government had introduced capital grant schemes for potatoes.342 Allan Chambers told us that smaller farms such as his could not justify the investment required to introduce new technology onto their farms.343

172.There are currently limits to how far some farming and processing operations can be automated. The UFU told us that in the meat processing sector in particular there were processes that could not be automated, such as boning out a carcass, and that skilled labour would be needed to carry out these tasks for the foreseeable future.344 Northway Mushrooms told us that, although the industry was investing in research and development on automation, there was currently no automated picking solution for mushrooms.345


173.We also explored the possibility that some tasks within agri-food that are currently required to be carried out by specialists could be fulfilled by “paraprofessionals”. For example, veterinary nurses might receive specific training to enable them to perform tasks that can currently only be carried out by veterinary surgeons. Such an approach could theoretically increase the pool of people available to carry out certain tasks, while also freeing up capacity among specialists so that they can be deployed where they are needed most. We heard that both DAERA and Defra were currently investigating the extent to which paraprofessionals could be used to carry out tasks that are currently reserved for veterinary surgeons.346 However, the Minister told us that safeguarding animal welfare within abattoirs would remain within the remit of veterinary surgeons only.347 We note that this is counter to the direction taken in other professional spheres, notably medicine and the law, where allied professionals are assuming more responsibility in well defined areas of practice.

174.Witnesses noted that there were some obstacles to increasing the role of paraprofessionals in veterinary practice. Dr Simon Doherty of the BVA and Conall Donnelly of NIMEA told us that the agriculture sector’s key export markets require that produce is certified by an independent and suitably qualified professional.348 Dr Doherty told us that veterinary nurses have a different type of training to veterinary surgeons and so would not be able to carry out some aspects of their work. He did tell us that some export certification was already being done by Environmental Health Officers (EHOs), but said that EHOs did not have the capacity to take on extra certification work.349

The domestic labour supply

175.We heard that fewer young people from Northern Ireland are pursuing careers in agriculture than in previous generations.350 Several reasons were suggested, including an increased emphasis on higher education and improvements in household incomes reducing incentives to supplement income through seasonal or part-time agricultural work.351 Sarah Baker of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told us that agricultural roles were seen as unappealing by many because they were often physically demanding and required staff to work inconvenient hours.352

176.We also heard that a lack of training pathways for some specialist roles had made Northern Ireland more dependent on labour either from other parts of the UK or from abroad. Dr Simon Doherty of the BVA told us that Northern Ireland does not have its own veterinary school, and that aspiring vets therefore had to study in Great Britain, at University College Dublin, or at veterinary schools in mainland Europe.353 Dr Doherty noted that efforts are being made to establish a veterinary school within the University of Ulster, but said that it would be difficult to make progress towards this goal without an Executive to take key decisions.354 The Minister told us that Defra has established a veterinary capability group to examine veterinary capacity, and is working with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to examine what can be done to encourage people to enter the profession.355

Government policy

177.The Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to report on the effect Brexit will have on the UK labour market and advise on how future immigration policy can support the UK’s industrial strategy.356 The Government’s commission asked the MAC to consider both sectoral and regional factors as part of its work.357 Defra submitted evidence to the MAC highlighting what it saw as the main issues facing the agricultural labour market, but this submission made no specific reference to Northern Ireland agriculture.358 In September 2018 the MAC published its report, in which it noted:

Northern Ireland has the added complexity of a land border with the EU via the Republic of Ireland. We think there are some grounds for concern in lower-wage sectors, especially in the agri-food sector which is relatively large in the Northern Irish economy. Dealing with the problem would require either a different scheme for the whole of the UK or a special scheme for Northern Ireland, neither of which are very attractive.359

The MAC noted that the land border made economic activity in Northern Ireland and the Republic more sensitive to neighbouring economic conditions than was the case in the UK.360 The MAC suggested that the concerns raised in their report would be best addressed through “support to increase investment and productivity,” and that “having a separate low-skill migration regime for Northern Ireland or letting these issues drive the design of a UK-wide system seem less attractive to us.”361

178.We asked the Agriculture Minister why Defra’s submission to the MAC did not acknowledge the specific challenges facing the agricultural labour market in Northern Ireland following Brexit. He responded that the issue was “more sectoral than regional” and that it made more sense to approach the problem on a sectoral basis. He gave the example of the dairy sector, where there is a need for year-round labour, and told us that issues facing dairy farms in Northern Ireland were similar to those faced by dairy farms in the West Country.362

179.We disagree. It is certainly the case that individual sub-sectors within agriculture face common challenges across the UK. However, there are unique considerations for Northern Ireland that Defra’s published work on the agricultural workforce does not take into account. Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, for example, complicates the position of workers who may need to cross the border frequently as part of their work, and may also create additional demand for veterinary certification that will bring with it labour pressures. The presence of the Republic of Ireland as a direct competitor for agricultural labour might also put additional pressure on Northern Ireland’s labour market.

180.The agri-food sector is critical to the Northern Ireland economy and depends on having access to a skilled workforce, much of which is currently drawn from within the EEA. Given the importance of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, it is critical that the sector should have access to the workforce it needs. It is a matter of considerable regret that Defra did not make a strong case for prioritising the labour needs of Northern Ireland agriculture in its submission to the Migration Advisory Committee. We note that, despite this, the MAC highlighted the importance of Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector as an area of specific concern in its final report.

181.It is vital that the importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland’s economy is reflected in the Government’s approach to immigration and labour policy, and that the Government recognises—as the Migration Advisory Committee has done—that the consequences of a labour shortage in the province would be more significant than in other regions of the UK.

182.We heard that, irrespective of Brexit, the supply of agricultural labour from Eastern Europe is likely to diminish in the future. Future policies for attracting agricultural workers will need to be mindful of this trend and give the UK the flexibility to draw on labour from around the world. The Government should, on the basis of the advice provided by the Migration Advisory Committee, report back to this Committee on the labour requirements of the Northern Ireland agriculture sector and how these will be met by post-Brexit immigration policy. The Government should also establish mechanisms through which the sectoral priorities of Northern Ireland and other UK regions can be reflected in immigration policy, such as by identifying priority professions for inclusion in the Shortage Occupation List.

293 Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, Brexit: Challenges & Opportunities for Northern Ireland Food & Drink, November 2016, p 18

295 Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, Brexit: Challenges & Opportunities for Northern Ireland Food & Drink, November 2016, p 18

299 Northway Mushrooms (AGR0007)

303 British Veterinary Association (AGR0008), p 7

309 CBI Northern Ireland (AGR0011)

310 CBI Northern Ireland (AGR0011)

320 Q369; Home Office, Immigration Rules Appendix K: shortage occupation list, Accessed 7 August 2018

326 Northway Mushrooms (AGR0007), p 6

327 Northway Mushrooms (AGR0007); Q64

328 HC Deb, 12 September 2013, Col60WS [Commons written ministerial statement]

329 Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland (AGR0003), p 8; Northway Mushrooms (AGR0007), p 7

333 Northway Mushrooms (AGR0007); Livestock and Meat Commission, Research Report, “Impact of WTO Trading on the Northern Ireland Beef and Sheep Meat Industry”, August 2017, p 94

335 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Response to Migration Advisory Committee Call for Evidence, 10 November 2017

336 HM Government, Speech: A Brighter Future for Farming, 20 February 2018

337 Migration Advisory Committee, EEA migration in the UK: Final report, 18 September 2018, p 5

358 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Response to Migration Advisory Committee Call for Evidence, 10 November 2017

359 Migration Advisory Committee, EEA migration in the UK: Final report, 18 September 2018, p 13

360 Ibid., p 121

361 Ibid., p 122

Published: 22 October 2018