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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

UK to pilot new visa system for non-EU farm workers

Programme starting in spring 2019 and enabling stays for up to six months intended to alleviate 'labour shortages during peak production periods'

UK farmers say it is becoming difficult to find staff as Brexit nears. Getty
UK farmers say it is becoming difficult to find staff as Brexit nears. Getty

Britain will trial a six-month visa system to let in non-EU seasonal workers to pick crops, as Brexit leaves farmers facing a labour shortage.

The two-year pilot programme will allow 2,500 workers from outside the European Union into Britain each year to help fruit and vegetable growers, amid dwindling arrivals from eastern bloc members, the government announced on Thursday.

The scheme, starting in spring 2019 and permitting them to stay for up to six months, is intended to alleviate "labour shortages during peak production periods", according to the Home Office.

"This pilot will ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year," said Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove added the government had "listened to the powerful arguments from farmers about the need for seasonal labour".

"We will review the pilot's results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU," he said.

Britain's booming horticultural industries, which contributed £2 billion (Dh9.49bn) to its economy in 2016, has already been buffeted by the country's impending departure from the EU next March.

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Farmers have reported sharp drops in the numbers of seasonal workers arriving from countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which supply the vast majority of fruit and vegetable pickers in Britain.

Improvements in labour markets in Eastern Europe and the fall in the value of the UK currency have has also exacerbated the problem.

Although the sector estimates it needs more than 80,000 people to meet its needs each year, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), hailed the pilot scheme "a major victory".

But Nick Marston, of industry body British Summer Fruits, was sceptical it would be anywhere near sufficient.

"Our farms are reporting staff shortages of 10 to 20 per cent already," he said, adding they need quadruple the 2,500 workers permitted in the trial.

"This number will have little effect on the current shortages UK farms are facing as we speak."

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