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How rural employers are having to rethink their employment strategies

View profile for Alexandra Dean
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We haven’t even shut the door on Europe yet, and already farms are finding it difficult to hire foreign seasonal workers for next year’s harvests. Since Brexit was announced, there have been plenty of divisive headlines about crops potentially rotting in the fields, and that old chestnut, the ‘lazy British workforce’ that’s not prepared to take on the backbreaking work our European colleagues are willing to do. So just how real are the issues facing farmers, as they increasingly rely on an international workforce to put British produce on the tables of the UK?

Heading home

Recent migration numbers indicate that the headline writers may be on to something – at least when it comes to a shortfall of labour in the fields. The number of foreign nationals returning to their country of origin has increased. Obviously, there is an annual movement of the workforce, especially at the end of the farming season when work starts to dry up. But this year, the numbers are considerably up on what you would normally expect. It appears that, fuelled by the uncertainty of their rights in the UK (a matter that still has to be settled by the British government in its Brexit negotiations), many foreign workers are indeed heading back home.

Tougher and more expensive work visas

One of the key selling points of Brexit was the tightening of border controls. To show they are responding to the demands of the public, the government has already indicated that visa restrictions will start to get considerably tougher next year. Not only could that put off immigrant workers, but it’s going to make it harder for farmers in the UK to drum up a workforce, and recruitment agencies specialising in seasonal workers won’t have that pool of labour to draw from.

There’s also the question of cost. At the moment, Tier 2 visa applications cost from £437-£1,151, depending on the length of stay and the sector the applicant will be working in. For farmers, every increase in cost is a reduction in their (very slim) profits. Changes to the visa requirements (such as whether the job is a skilled or unskilled position) could also put a halt on transient workforces from eastern bloc countries in particular.

Work sponsorship

Sponsorship systems are more applicable to skilled positions rather than farming, but if a farmer in the UK has sponsored a farm manager, for example, they could find that next year the cost of that will rocket up by up to £5,000, putting work sponsorship completely out of reach for almost any position in the agricultural sector.

Resident Labour Market tests

It could be time to see just how ‘lazy’ that British workforce really is, and just how wildly off-target the headline writers are. Under new employment legislation brought in on the back of Brexit, employers are subject to the RLMT or Resident Labour Market Test. This means employers will have to advertise a vacancy within the UK before giving the job to an EU or foreign national worker. UK workers who have the skills and ability can apply for the role first. But how effective will that be in unskilled (and notoriously hard) jobs in the farming sector?

Restrictions on family members

While many EU workers come over to the UK on their own, leaving their family back in their country of origin, others want to bring their families with them. New guidelines may put a stop to that, limiting the ability of EU workers to bring family members, married or unmarried partners, and children with them. This is one of the biggest bones of contention under the proposed changes to the current ‘freedom of movement’ system. This too could stop a lot of both skilled and unskilled workers from taking up jobs in the UK.

Farming seems to stagger from crisis to crisis. The possibility of a massive shortage of labour could be one of the biggest challenges facing the industry in a generation. For farmers worried about their position, and the legal implications of the changes to employment and immigration law currently in the pipeline, taking advice from a legal expert sooner rather than later could prevent even bigger problems further down the line.

At Gepp & Sons, our Employment Team will be happy to assist you with any aspect of employment law. If you seek advice, please contact our Head of Department, Alexandra Dean, on 01245 228141 or via deana@gepp.co.uk.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.