British grower groups call for “proper consultation” before new audit rules on seasonal worker fees are introduced in UK

Seasonal workers

Under new Smeta rules, UK growers may have to pay all seasonal worker recruitment fees or face audit findings

Image: NFU

British horticulture groups are calling for a pause to new rules requiring growers to pay seasonal worker recruitment fees, which they fear will undermine UK food security and risk food inflation.

Changes to the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (Smeta) – which growers must pass to supply UK retailers – will require UK farming businesses to pay for the transport and visa fees of the seasonal workers they employ. Sedex, the global organisation behind the standards, is due to implement these changes from 10 September 2024.

The NFU, British Apples and Pears (BAPL) and British Berry Growers are calling on Sedex to halt these changes to the new Smeta 7.0 standard until a “proper” UK industry consultation has taken place.

‘Unfair and rushed’

The grower groups argue that these changes are unfair to British growers and that they are being rushed through without waiting for a Defra-funded impact assessment report, which is being conducted by the UK government’s seasonal worker scheme task force and is due for completion next year.

“Before that proper impact assessment has been completed, there is no place for this new Smeta standard,” BAPL said in a statement.

“This new standard has the potential to cause chaos and stress in fresh produce if introduced without appropriate consultation across the whole supply chain. In particular, there are serious implications for UK food price inflation and security,” it said.

Speaking to the FPJ, BAPL executive chair Ali Capper said: “We would argue that these [Smeta 7.0] standards are aspirational, not required by national law, and that they are being rushed through. Sedex are talking about a consultation, but we are being given one week to look at things.”

‘Collaborative action’ is unauditable

Capper explained that, under the proposed new standards, if a UK grower has not been able to demonstrate that they have paid the travel and visa costs for a worker – which no-one will be able to demonstrate because the seasonal worker scheme does not require it – then the Smeta auditor will slap a ‘collaborative action required’ finding against their business.

“The way that is framed is the individual supplier and retailer then work together to come up with a plan of action,” she said. “That is quite chaotic if different retailers request different things of different suppliers. Can you imagine the chaos that is going to cause within our seasonal workers workforce? That is what we are trying to limit and avoid.”

BAPL has calculated that paying the full travel and visa costs for seasonal workers would be equivalent to a 4-5p price increase in the cost of every pack of apples. “Given the fact that apple and pear growers margins are already stretched to breaking point, these additional costs will have to be covered by retailers,” it said.

BAPL calls for aligned retail response

BAPL is therefore appealing to all UK retailers to “align and agree” that UK fresh produce growers will not be expected to adhere to this part of the Smeta 7.0 audit from 10 September in order to supply them.

Grower groups said they had expected a collective British retail response to the proposed Smeta changes by the end of June, but, so far, no such statement has appeared.

BAPL and British Berry Growers said their members were anxious to hear from retailers since it is only eight weeks until the proposed new audit standards are introduced.

“Retailers have two choices really,” Capper told FPJ. “Align around a statement that says very clearly that fresh produce suppliers don’t need to respond to this section of the audit until we have seen the Defra feasibility study. Or, if collaborative action is required, retail will require no action from fresh produce suppliers. If those two things are too difficult, then delay the implementation of these new rules. Because, at the moment, this isn’t auditable.”

Responding to an FPJ request for comment, British Retail Consortium (BRC) sustainability policy adviser Sophie De Salis said: “UK retailers want to do everything in their power to protect workers. They are supportive of the new audit methodology and are working closely with Sedex on this transition, including how this can be aligned with the industry’s ongoing work on recruitment fees, through the Seasonal Worker Scheme Taskforce.

She added: “UK retailers are also working together to make sure suppliers get clear and consistent advice and reassure them that the introduction of the ’Collaborative Action Required’ issue code will be used to encourage collective action and will not require anyone to shoulder the responsibility alone.”

BAPL statement reflects NFU position

Speaking earlier to the FPJ, Martin Emmett, chair of the NFU’s national Horticulture and Potatoes Board, said BAPL’s statement reflects the current NFU position.

“We are asking for a pause to the new Smeta audit because it actually contains standards which we regard as aspirational, and also standards that are not auditable,” he said.

“The main area of focus is the payment-to-recruit fee. Recruitment fees will have to be paid upfront by the employer, and to facilitate that there will be a collaborative action required status.”

He continued: “We challenge the interpretation of recruitment fees as pertaining to travel and costs. It seems to us reasonable that it can be the responsibility of the employee to determine that they wish to come to the UK, and it should not necessarily be a cost borne by the employer.

“But thereafter to have a situation where we have this ‘collaborative action required’ [if the employer did not pay the recruitment fees], whereby outcomes are left in the hands of the retailers and how they wish to interpret them. This is vague and unauditable.

“Bearing in mind that many suppliers will supply several retailers, it creates a level of uncertainty about how these costs will be covered within the supply chain. This can only significantly impact on grower confidence. And as we know, lack of confidence is a key issue that is driving the decline in fresh produce production at the moment. This audit in its current form would significantly impact business confidence and therefore undermine UK food security.”

Berry growers “gravely concerned”

Nick Marston, British Berry Growers chairman, added: “At British Berry Growers, we are similarly gravely concerned. Our growers are dismayed that these requirements have been brought in without any proper consultation, without any consideration of the practicalities.”

He continued: “In broad principles, I think all compliance schemes should have a proper governance structure which allows for appropriate consultation with all stakeholders and with consideration applied to the practicalities and consequences of those requirements.

“This is just another example of NGOs and audit bodies generating added costs to horticulture production with no actual consideration to the competitive global market, and secondly no consideration for UK production and food security,” Marston said.

“There has to be governance. The audit burden on growers is substantial and the requirements of those audits generate ever-increasing costs for businesses. Some of which are appropriate. Take the living wage. Of course people should pay the living wage. No one is objecting to that. What we are objecting to is what we see as unnecessary UK gold-plating.”