The Minister of State for Immigration (Mark Harper): The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allows fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania as seasonal workers for up to six months at a time. It will close, as planned, at the end of 2013. The government does not intend to open any new SAWS for workers from outside the EEA as our view is that, at a time of unemployment in the UK and the European Union there should be sufficient workers from within those labour markets to meet the needs of the horticultural industry. The Agricultural Technologies Strategy will support innovation by agricultural businesses, which will also help to offset future impacts.
Currently, there is an annual quota of 21,250 SAWS participants. From 1 January 2014, when the transitional labour market controls on Bulgarian and Romanian (EU2) nationals are lifted, growers will have unrestricted access to EU2 workers. Since the controls on the EU8 (the member states that acceded to the European Union in 2004) workers were lifted, those workers have continued to form the core of the seasonal agricultural workforce. At present, UK growers recruit about one third of their seasonal workers from the EU2, and about one half from the EU8. Seasonal agricultural work can pay good wages and the sector should be able to attract and retain UK and EEA workers.
Our migration policy is to allow only highly skilled workers from outside the EEA, with an annual limit of 20,700 workers. Unskilled and low skilled labour needs should be satisfied from within the expanded EEA labour market. The SAWS was previously open to non-EEA nationals but was restricted in 2007 to EU2 nationals, consistent with an intention to phase it out as the EEA labour market expanded. That remains the government’s position. We do not think that the characteristics of the horticultural sector, such as its seasonality and dependence on readily available workers to be deployed at short notice, are so different from those in other employment sectors as to merit special treatment from a migration policy perspective.
The independent Migration Advisory Committee reviewed the impact of the closure of the SAWS on the horticulture sector earlier this year. They concluded that there was unlikely to be an impact on labour supply in the short term, although this might change in the longer term. They noted, however, that there is a wide range of uncertainty around the effects on migration flows to the UK of ending restrictions on labour market access for EU2 nationals. The MAC was also clear that a replacement SAWS would amount to preferential treatment for horticulture.
The government recognises that the SAWS has for many years provided an efficient supply of labour for the horticultural sector. The Department for Work and Pensions has been working with JobCentre Plus, LANTRA (the sector skills council), the National Farmers’ Union and others, including growers and horticultural recruitment firms, to help unemployed UK residents into horticultural work through training and guaranteed interviews. A pilot scheme to encourage unemployed UK residents to apply for, train and secure jobs on arable farms has shown encouraging results with a high proportion of participants going on to secure employment in the
sector. We want to build on this and other innovative approaches. The government, including the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and local government, looks forward to working with the sector to monitor and address the issues, and will keep the situation under review.
The government has also decided it will not replace the Sector Based Scheme which operates in the food processing sector when this closes at the end of the year. The scheme is not heavily used and the Migration Advisory Committee concluded closure was unlikely to have any negative effects on the sector’s ability to meet its labour needs.