Cornwall county council has called on the government for special permission to adopt area-specific migration laws to tackle a labour shortage that is already causing produce to rot in fields.
Recent research commissioned by Cornwall Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership found that changes to migration laws after Brexit could lead to multi-million pound losses to the Cornish economy if the horticultural industry can’t access the skills and workforce it needs.
The study found that after the Brexit vote recruitment immediately became more difficult for horticultural farms, harvests could not be lifted in full, and staffing requirements dwindled to 65 per cent of need.
Growers have been unable to fully harvest crops this year due to a sharp fall in migrant labour, with Cornwall a major production region for brassicas, potatoes and fresh cut daffodils.
The county in the South West is home to 17,000 EU nationals, who make up three per cent of the county's population and are mainly employed in industries such as food and agriculture.
There is no evidence that migrant labour is displacing the local workforce, the council said.
David Simmons of vegetable grower Riviera Produce, one of the biggest producers in Cornwall, predicted dire consequences if access to migrant labour is restricted after Brexit.
“If we put strict limits on Eastern European migrant labour or devise alternative immigration policies that limit so-called ‘low-skilled’ labour, the Cornish horticultural industry is finished,” he said.
The business, which employs around 450 mostly year-round staff during its peak harvesting period in June and July, has struggled to secure enough pickers this year. Instead it has had to rely on lower quality workers supplied by recruitment agencies.
“We’re scraping by but people are wanting to leave,” said the company’s commercial business manager Tom Simmons. “There’s more uncertainty, and it looks like it’s going to get worse.”
Scandinavia has been the main place tempting workers away, he added, with Norway proving a popular destination for forestry work.
Council leader Adam Paynter called for government to take a place-based approach to future migration and workforce. “Many of our major industries such as horticulture could be severely impacted and are already feeling the pinch with some of our crops rotting in the fields following a sharp fall in the number of EU workers,” he said.
“We are calling on the government to take a place-based approach to future migration, to make sure that the Cornish economy has access to skills which may not be highly valued in London but which are vital to a major rural economy like ours”.
Sandra Rothwell, chief executive of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership added: “We cannot afford a one-size fits all solution or the continued uncertainty that has already started to blight the labour market.”