jimmy davies HOPS

HOPS's Jimmy Davies

There are growing concerns that the government will discontinue the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) and adopt a “see how they cope” approach to growers’ labour needs.

Speaking at this week’s Fruit Focus event, NFU chief horticultural adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons described a recent Migration Advisory Committee report as “very thorough but disappointing”, with the report suggesting the industry could cope simply with Romanian and Bulgarian workers.

Temporary restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK are due to expire next year, leaving them free to seek any work opportunities they can find. Currently short-term agricultural work is one of the few sectors where they are able to legally work in the UK.

But Campbell-Gibbons said an NFU survey showed 50 per cent of growers believed Romanians and Bulgarians wouldn’t return to work on farms. “With a £3 billion farmgate industry, that’s a big gamble to take,” she warned. “This point seems to have really stuck within the government and I’m concerned the Home Office will want to see how the industry gets on [without SAWS].”

The consequences of such an approach could be delayed on-farm investment and a dent to growers’ confidence, she added. Describing the situation as “extremely political”, Campbell-Gibbons stressed there was a danger the issue was being caught up in top-line political debate that had little to do with the practicalities of the industry’s needs.

Jimmy Davies, general manager at SAWS labour provider HOPS, underlined the NFU’s concern. “It’s not a particularly scientific way to judge if there’s enough labour,” he said. “Shortages can develop very quickly. We have to instill confidence in our customers that we can meet their labour demands. As Romanians and Bulgarians get their work rights their numbers [available to horticulture] will go down, as will the calibre of person.”

Davies urged growers to make every effort to recruit local UK labour, partly to demonstrate to government that they are doing all they can not to bring in workers from abroad. Currently only 0.5 per cent of HOPS’ labour force is being sourced from the UK.

Soft-fruit grower Anthony Snell painted a grim picture of the durability of UK workers, describing a recent situation where three locals were employed. On the first day one forgot his sandwiches and had to go home, a second went down with hayfever and a third got so tired he couldn’t ride his bike home and had to be driven back.