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Immigration: Without seasonal workers, there will be no soft fruit industry

We don’t know what the Immigration bill will cover. But if it restricts access to workers for low-paid jobs, our soft fruit industry will be in trouble.


In yesterday’s Queen’s speech, one of the Brexit bills to be introduced is one on immigration. But whilst the government was clear that this would end freedom movement, there were no clues as to what policies there would be instead. The purpose of the bill would make migration of EU citizens and their family members subject to UK law. The government’s background notes the speech also said the bill would still allow the UK “to attract the brightest and the best”.

The government’s repeated commitment to reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands” in the Tory manifesto suggests it sees reduced immigration as a goal of ‘taking back control’. However, it has not been so forthcoming in saying where they would like to reduce immigration.

Will the “brightest and best” include seasonal workers for farms?

This is perhaps because industries from agriculture to IT as well as public services like the NHS have said they are already experiencing labour shortages. So who does the “brightest and best” refer to? Brexiteers have previously been keen to stress that ‘highly skilled workers’ would continue to be welcome in the UK. And the chancellor Philip Hammond said last year he did not believe the concerns British people had over immigration relate to “people with high skills and high pay”.

This may provide some comfort to some businesses but what about others where they’re struggling to recruit to jobs that require fewer skills on less pay? The Guardian reports that UK-based fruit producers may be forced to relocate their operations to the EU if they could not access labour here. In a report commissioned by industry body British Summer Fruits, farmers also warned of increased food prices as a result.

The vast majority of the jobs they offer are seasonal where more than 90% of pickers and packers come from the EU. And they expect demand for seasonal workers to grow if the industry continues to expand at its current pace. Speaking about the report, British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins warned “if we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry”.

On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, a strawberry farmer said they were already seeing fewer applicants for seasonal jobs. The weak pound since the referendum has meant that the already low wages will be worth less when the workers – primarily from Eastern Europe – return home after the season is over. The Migration Observatory published a report that despite there not yet being a change to EU citizens’ legal status, there was already a reduction in the net number of EU citizens moving to the UK for work. As well as the weak pound, the report said “uncertainty related to future residency rights” and the “political environment in the UK” are likely to affect many EU citizens’ decision to migrate to the UK. The Migration Observatory added that uncertainty over these is “unlikely to decrease in the near future”.

… for many EU workers uncertainty related to future residency rights, the value of the pound and the political environment of the UK are likely to play a major role in migration decisions.

Brexodus? Migration and uncertainty after the EU referendum, The Migration Observatory

Also featuring on Radio 4’s Today, Harry Hall who runs a strawberry farm said he voted Leave in the referendum because of sovereignty and that his decision wasn’t about immigration. He added “if I don’t have my 2,500 people that I need or I don’t have certainty of that in 2019 onwards, I don’t have a business”. When asked if he regretted his vote, Hall said “I regret my vote in the face of the government I’m given”. Presumably because of its focus on immigration control above all else.

Since the general election, MPs have become more vocal about the need to prioritise jobs and the economy over immigration control. This may yet deliver us a softer Brexit. A soft Brexit similar to the relationship Norway or Switzerland has with the EU would be a relatively good outcome for jobs and trade as well as meeting our recruitment challenges. But as we’ll no longer be in the EU, we would no longer have a say in the EU’s rules.

Sounds like we’d have less sovereignty than we have as an EU member to me.

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