The UK’s new immigration policy and the food supply chain Contents

5Seasonal agricultural workers

42.Farming is unusual compared to many other areas of the economy as the short periods in which crops can be harvested creates very short-term and localised spikes in demand for labour. Seasonal workers, therefore, usually travel from one farm to another to harvest different types of crop.93 Possibly uniquely within the UK economy, the edible horticulture harvesting workforce is estimated to be almost entirely (99%) overseas labour, predominantly from eastern EU countries.94 However, the UK is by no means unusual in this regard; Tom Bradshaw, Vice President of the National Farmers Union, said that “just about all developed economies around the world rely on a migrant workforce to provide this seasonal labour”.95

43.A shortage of seasonal workers could lead to production of some crops moving overseas. G’s Fresh—a large edible horticultural company—noted that UK labour supply for the 2021 season was “increasingly uncertain at a time when production decisions are being taken” and therefore “plans are being made to transfer production overseas”.96 Richard Griffiths cautioned that “once you start to lose capacity, it is very difficult for it come back”, adding “it is difficult to get new farms and new slaughterhouses”.97 The NFU noted the lack of certainty around size of the seasonal workforce for 2021, combined with “the still relatively small proportion of UK nationals participating in the workforce this year, and the lack of further ready to market labour-saving automation”. As a result, the NFU said that there was “real concern amongst growers that they simply will not be able to secure the workforce they need for next years’ harvest. This concern is particularly acute for members whose season begins in January”.98

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme—history

44.A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was first introduced shortly after the Second World War: the MAC noted while there were changes in the “eligibility rules, quota size and operation of the scheme” it remained “essentially the same” during its operation up to 2014, enabling “workers (usually students) to come to the UK for short periods, specifically to live and work on farms during peak seasons”.99

45.The UK’s membership of the European Union gave it access to a vast and growing pool of labour, most notably in 2004 when eight eastern European countries acceded to the Union (known as the “A8”), and further in 2007 when Bulgaria and Romania (the “A2”) also joined.100 Since 2008, the SAWS closed to non-EEA applicants and became exclusively a route for Bulgarian and Romanian workers while the UK exercised transitional measures for the first seven years of the A2’s membership.101 The SAWS closed in 2014 when these restrictions ended.102

The number of seasonal agricultural workers required

46.In its April 2017 report, Feeding the nation: labour constraints, our predecessor Committee said that the Government’s statistics “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”.103 In its response, the Government acknowledged that its statistics on the agricultural workforce “are not designed to measure seasonal labour” but said that it “remain[ed] closely engaged with the various food and farming stakeholders, including the major labour providers, to ensure that we are informed of their latest intelligence on labour demand”.104

47.Three years on, and differences remain. The National Farmers Union told us that “industry data identifies that 70,000 workers are needed to fill 80,000 seasonal horticultural roles”,105 while Victoria Prentis said the Government’s figure was “about 40,000” based on ONS and HM Revenue and Customs data.106 Tom Bradshaw of the NFU said that it was important to have one single, agreed, estimate of the number of seasonal agricultural workers in order for Defra to “believe that that number is the right number so that they can really fight our corner”.107

48.It is a matter of concern that there continues to be no single, agreed figure for the aggregate number and the breakdown by nationality of seasonal agricultural workers, given the importance of this data for the formulation of policy. The Government, employers and representative bodies must work together to develop a common methodology for measuring the aggregate number and the breakdown by nationality of seasonal workers in the food supply chain. In order that Defra’s data commands confidence with stakeholders and within Government it should seek to ensure that these statistics are designated as “National Statistics” by the independent Office for Statistics Regulation.108

The new pilot

49.The Government has confirmed that the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme will operate in 2021 for a third year.109 At the time of writing, it has yet to announce the details of the scheme including any cap on the number of workers. The Government has explained that the pilot is intended to “test the effectiveness of our immigration system at helping to alleviate seasonal labour shortages during peak production periods, whilst maintaining robust immigration control and ensuring there are minimal impacts on local communities and public services”.110 In 2019, it allowed fruit and vegetable farmers to employ up to 2,500 non-EEA migrant seasonal workers for up to 6 months; increasing to 10,000 in 2020. The full quota was not taken up in 2020 (only 6,500 visas were issued); Kevin Foster cited the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on travel restrictions as one reason, but also acknowledged that because the pilot was running alongside freedom of movement, farmers could continue to find the labour they needed from the EEA without having to use the pilot.111 The first two years of the SWP were limited to non-EEA immigrants working in the edible horticulture sector. The Cornwall Area Bulb Growers Association and a number of businesses in the ornamental sector have told us that they will not have sufficient employees for the daffodil harvesting season which starts in January 2021.112 Seasonal workers in the food manufacturing sector have also been excluded by the SWP to date, including sheep shearing and poultry production at Christmas; the British Meat Processors Association estimated a need for “approximately 10,000–15,000 seasonal workers”.113

Seasonal workers and the Government’s settlement scheme

50.EEA seasonal workers who have already been working in the UK have been able to apply for EU Settled Status or Pre-Settled Status. The NFU reported while its members were “encouraging seasonal workers in this years’ workforce to apply for the EU settlement scheme”, it was concerned that there was “no certainty on how many seasonal workers will apply and/or go on to utilise this status by returning to UK horticultural businesses next year”.114 Pro Force, a labour provider, said that there was “a high level of nervousness from our client[s] and a low expectation that the EU settlement scheme will provide enough labour for the industry”.115 It said that although Settled and Pre-Settled Status applications for Pro-Force workers were “going well”, it “anticipated that even if all of our workers were granted pre-settled or settled status, we would have an average of 50% of the labour we need when taking in to account the annual returnee rate”.116

51.Victoria Prentis said that “most of the migrant labour picking daffodils in Cornwall, for example, are people with settled or pre-settled status” and that the Government was anticipating this group “will form the labour force in the early part of next year for the ornamentals and for the daffodil sector in particular”.117 She noted that Defra had assisted G’s Fresh in their efforts to ensure that its migrant workforce secured EU Settled Status or Pre-Settled Status.118

52.Overall, Victoria Prentis said that “we have about 20,000 people who may have started their lives in eastern Europe but now have settled status or pre-settled status […] They now have the perfect legal right to stay in the UK and to pick whatever they like, as required”.119 She added that the size of the SWP for 2021 needed to be in the “range” of 20,000—the difference between Defra’s estimate of the total number of seasonal workers required and those it estimated already had a right to work in the UK—although she conceded that this was a “conservative figure”.120

Attracting domestic workers and lessons from Pick for Britain

Figure 3: Average hourly wages in the EU and UK in 2019121

Figure 3: Average hourly wages in the EU and UK in 2019

53.Several reasons were cited by witnesses as to why domestic workers are not attracted to seasonal agricultural jobs. G’s Fresh noted that “competition for labour has driven the need to attract and retain the most talented colleagues who typically earn £13/hr [hour]”, and said that seasonal workers cannot therefore be categorised as “’cheap’ labour”.122 Riviera Produce said that it paid its staff piecework “and most achieve rates of pay from £12 to £20/hour”.123 These wage rates compare favourably to the National Living Wage (for those aged 25 and over) of £8.72 per hour, and especially favourably to wages in eastern Europe (see figure 3). Kevin Foster told us that seasonal agricultural work “is not low paid—I would not want to put it in that category; you can do very well if you are a productive, active worker”, while Victoria Prentis said that “it is a bit of a seller’s market”, highlighting the negotiating power that some seasonal workers have.124

54.David Camp explained that there were a number of reasons why UK workers were not attracted to seasonal agricultural work:

First, it is in rural locations. Secondly, it requires living near or on the farm, which puts many off. Thirdly, there is an irregular nature to the work, in that the crops ripen when they ripen, and the weather is as the weather is. Some days you are working many, many hours or longer hours; other days there is less work. It does not stop at weekends. By the nature of the work—being outdoors, being irregular, being across seven days a week—that dissuades many as well. There are other options to earn the same amount of money, such as working in a coffee shop.125

55.Victoria Prentis’s view was that “it is not the hard work that is putting them off. It is the impermanence of the job […] The other reason is the geography of where these farms are” but added “neither of those is necessarily insuperable”.126 She explained that she was working with the DWP on the introduction of special buses to allow people to get to farms more easily, but conceded that “I would not want to pretend that we have all the answers at the moment, because we do not, but we are open to looking at many models”.127 However, G’s Fresh contended it wasn’t merely a matter of policy change but of a different “societal and industry culture” which would take years to change.128

56.The travel restrictions caused by the covid-19 pandemic created concerns that immigrant seasonal agricultural workers would not be able to travel to the UK to harvest crops this year.129 In response, several initiatives were launched to attract workers based in the UK into seasonal agricultural roles, including the Government’s “Pick for Britain” campaign.130

57.Victoria Prentis said that, at its peak, the Pick for Britain website “had about 2 million hits as a website, which is useful. We had 27 growers at the busiest time advertising their roles on there”, adding “we know there was a lot of interest in those roles”.131 However, the large number of website hits did not translate into large-scale recruitment. Pro-Force reported that, of 15,000 domestic applications, only 3% were successfully placed (but noted some farmers might have recruited people directly).132 Victoria Prentis told us that the Government estimated that during 2020 “we think we have gone from about 1% to about 11% native Brit” working in seasonal agricultural roles.133 Monthly figures compiled by NFU showed an average of 5.5% of all seasonal agricultural workers were British during the period March to August 2020 (see table 1).134

58.However, there were questions about how long domestic workers stayed in role. Pro-Force reported that “of the 450 UK based workers (this includes British and EU workers living in the UK) we placed with our clients less than 4% remained on the assignment at the end of the season”.135 In terms of these new workers’ productivity, Place UK, a fruit producer, reported the average performance of its UK workers was only around half that of its EU staff.136 Tom Bradshaw highlighted that returning workers “are always the most productive workers”.137 G’s Fresh said that, in their experience, “in the first full week the British crews’ productivity levels were comparable to any other new crew”; however “this was not sustained over subsequent weeks [and] productivity levels dropped by up to 50% of their comparable EU and SWP colleagues”.138

Table 1: UK nationals as a percentage of total seasonal agricultural workers recruited in 2020139

Figure for month

Figure for year to date



















59.One consideration may be concerns from potential seasonal workers about the impact of taking non-permanent work while in receipt of welfare benefits. Universal Credit (UC) is more flexible than Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) (which it is replacing) in this regard: unlike JSA which stopped when someone worked more than 16 hours a week, recipients of UC can accept full-time seasonal work for up to 6 months without needing to close their claim.140 This means that if someone makes a reclaim or has their award reinstated (it having been stopped due to the level of their earnings from seasonal agricultural work), they should be paid UC on the same day of the month as previously.141 Additionally, during the covid-19 pandemic, the Government permitted furloughed employees to take up seasonal agricultural work if their contract of employment allowed them to do other work.142

60.Victoria Prentis said that “given that we had to stand it up really quickly”, Pick for Britain “was a success and it filled a bit of the gap”.143 She said that the failure to recruit more local people “is not a fault of Pick for Britain; this is a fault of a workforce that has not been here in the past and that we need to educate and help to fill the roles we need in the picking sector”.144 Kevin Foster said that Pick for Britain “shows the sector itself wanting to turn to the domestic market first and to immigration second for where it could not fill the need”.145

61.While we commend Defra for standing up the Pick for Britain scheme so quickly and for promoting it successfully, this cannot hide the fact that it did not achieve what it hoped to do: attract a significant number of British works to pick crops. Given the favourable conditions in which it operated this year, i.e. the pandemic causing significant slack in the labour market coupled with significant media coverage of the need for seasonal labour, it is clear that structural changes are required if seasonal jobs are to appeal to UK workers. While the flexibilities under Universal Credit highlight the support that the Government can give through bringing forward targeted policies, the onus is on businesses to improve the pay and conditions they offer. These changes cannot be achieved overnight, especially when the industry is also facing significant uncertainties caused by the pandemic and the end of the transition period. But more fundamentally, the UK has required migrant seasonal workers since the end of the Second World War, highlighting that UK workers are not attracted to such work—it is simply not realistic to expect UK workers to return to harvesting roles in significant numbers in the short to medium-term, if ever. If there is insufficient seasonal labour, there is a danger that some agricultural companies and others in the food supply chain that rely on it may relocate abroad.

62.We therefore recommend that the Seasonal Workers Pilot for 2021 should be expanded to include other food supply chain and agricultural sectors beyond edible horticulture, and have a sufficiently generous cap that allows all businesses to recruit the labour they need. Given that farmers need to ensure that the crops they plant will be harvested, it is essential the Government publishes the cap for 2021 immediately. This policy should be kept under review—particularly in the first half of 2021—by a joint Defra and Home Office group with a specific remit to monitor and forecast the levels of demand and supply of seasonal workers in the food supply chain to ensure that there is sufficient labour to harvest our crops.

94 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (LFS0033) para 1.1.3

96 G’s Fresh (LFS0048) p7

98 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p2

99 Migration Advisory Committee, Migrant Seasonal Workers (May 2013), pp47–48, paras 3.6, 3.8

100 The full list of A8 countries is: Czech Republic; Estonia; Hungary; Latvia; Lithuania; Poland; Slovakia; and Slovenia. Cyprus and Malta also acceded to the EU in 2004.

101 Migration Advisory Committee, Migrant Seasonal Workers (May 2013), p9, para 2

102 Defra and Home Office, Seasonal Workers Pilot request for information, 21 February 2020

103 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, Feeding the nation: labour constraints, HC 1009, p6, para 12

104 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Third Special Report of Session 2017–19, Feeding the nation: labour constraints: Government Response to the Committee’s Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, HC 446, p2

105 National Farmers Union (LFS0013) p1

108 Office for Statistics Regulation, ‘National Statistics’, accessed 3 December 2020

109 Home Affairs Committee, Work of the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, HC 919 2019–21, 4 November 2020, Q125

110 GOV.UK, ‘Seasonal workers pilot opens’, news story, 6 March 2019

112 Cornwall Area Bulb Growers Association (LFS0046). See also National Farmers Union (LFS0037), Maurice Crouch (Growers) Ltd (LFS0042), Fentongollan Farms (FLS0045), Q188

113 British Meat Processors Association (LFS0022) p3

114 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p2

115 Pro-Force Ltd (LFS0040) p2

116 Pro-Force Ltd (LFS0040) p2

121 House of Commons Library; data for Romania is for 2017

122 G’s Fresh (LFS0048) p3

123 Riviera Produce Ltd (LFS0041) p1

128 G’s Fresh (LFS0048) p2

130 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p1

132 Pro-Force Ltd (LFS0040) p1

134 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p1

135 Pro-Force Ltd (LFS0040) p2

136 Place UK (LFS0039) p3

138 G’s Fresh (LFS0048) p4

139 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p1

140 Department for Work and Pensions, Universal Credit: different earning patterns and your payments (payment cycles), updated 13 March 2019 and Department for Work and Pensions, ‘Universal Credit and employers: 2. How Universal Credit helps employers’, accessed 14 December 2020. The 16 hours limit applies to all types of Jobseekers’ Allowance, see GOV.UK, ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA): Eligibility’, accessed 14 December 2020.

141 House of Commons Library

Published: 22 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement