Migrant Workers Needed (Please) - Is the UK turning off essential workers?

Jan 13th 2017

At the Oxford Farming Conference on the 3rd of January, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom pledged that British farmers would have access to migrant workers post-Brexit.  If we put aside the problems with making such a pledge before a deal is set in stone, should we be looking not at whether we need them, but if they want us?

The idea that farmers will be able to retain seasonal migrant labour rather depends on an unspoken assumption that the UK is still a desirable destination for workers. 

And be under no illusions: UK agriculture needs those seasonal workers.  It’s estimated that around 60,000 workers come to the UK from the European Union each year to work in the sector.  To put it another way, according to the Office of National Statistics, 65% of agricultural workers are non-UK EU workers, and for some specific crops this is much higher, to the extent that some farmers have warned that a lack of migrant workers could result in growers of strawberries, cucumbers, blackberries and more going out of business if denied access to this labour.

Existing migrant workers would have a much harder time coming to work here - recent research from Oxford’s Migration Observatory found that 96% of EU workers currently employed in agriculture would fail current UK visa requirements.  Such a sharp reduction in workers would potentially destroy swathes of the UK agriculture sector, or see it flee abroad.

None of which addresses the question – will post-Brexit Britain still be attractive to these much-needed workers?  The migrant labour market faces a number of potential issues, such as a falling exchange rate cutting into the value of wages.  There may also eventually be increased hassle and costs involved in accessing the UK, despite statements to the contrary – let us not forget that the government still refuses to provide up-front assurances that EU citizens who have settled here can stay, in case the EU does not extend that same courtesy to us.  Why should the bureaucracy around migrant workers be any less subject to such tit-for-tat measures?

More worrying, however, is the face of Britain that potential workers see.  At the end of last year the high court found in favour of six migrant workers from Lithuania against a gang-master couple in Kent, becoming the first settlement of a claim in relation to modern slavery.  Combined with a perceived rise in xenophobia in Britain, the country could find itself rapidly sliding down people’s rankings when considering where to work.

It’s not hard to imagine many potential workers deciding it’s not worth the money, hassle or risk involved in coming here.