It is generally accepted that one of the driving forces behind the majority vote for Brexit was the need to halt unlimited freedom of movement and its path to permanent residence for EEA nationals. Many sectors, including agriculture, are watching negotiations with a degree of trepidation, believing that efforts to restrict migration will be severely detrimental to their operations. This fear is summarised by the recently published responses to the Migration Advisory Committee's (MAC) consultation paper into the impact of the UK leaving the EU on a future agricultural labour market, which confirms the belief that, without the ability to recruit seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, the long term viability of many farms is questionable.

Eastern European workers more productive than UK counterparts

MAC received responses from a range of businesses across the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors including soft fruit farmers in Herefordshire, Kent and Scotland, vegetable growers in East Anglia, the CLA, NFU Scotland, and the British Growers Association. The respondents noted that, overall, workers from eastern Europe tended to be more experienced, willing to work seasonally and flexibly in a physically demanding environment, were more productive and reliable, and generally had a good work ethic. Conversely, efforts to recruit UK workers were largely unsuccessful – most are not interested in outdoor, seasonal, manual labour, particularly when employment rates are generally so low (although pay was not cited as an issue). Rather depressingly, most also reported that the employment of UK nationals often led to a productivity drop of up to 25% as their negative attitude tended to adversely affect the rest of the operation.

Farmers already experiencing staff shortages

The impact of reducing, or even stopping, the flow of migrant workers is very real: many respondents experienced difficulty in recruiting sufficient numbers of workers for the 2017 season (staff shortages meant a Scottish raspberry producer left £48,000 of raspberries unpicked) and most have reported problems recruiting for this year. Weak sterling, evidence of antagonism towards migrant workers, and better prospects in their home countries were all cited as reasons for the drop in applications, as well as competition from other western European countries, also heavily reliant on eastern European labour. A recent survey carried out by a digital data survey (Farmers' Weekly, 23 March) indicated that the number of Google searches carried out by eastern European workers looking for UK agricultural jobs has dropped by 34% in the last 12 months, mirroring the experience of the respondents.

Long term viability of some farms in question

All the respondents were pessimistic about the economic consequences of fewer migrant workers: most had either reduced, or were planning to reduce, their capital expenditure; and several queried the long term viability of their business. Claims that mechanisation and automation would help to bridge the gap, were not dismissed but, as several respondents pointed out, automation had largely occurred where practical. The West Sussex Growers' Association noted that although its members have invested heavily in technology, in some areas such as harvesting soft fruit, mechanisation is still very much under development due to the inherent fragility of the crop, and is unlikely to be deployed in the short to medium term.

Return to SAWS?

So, what is the solution? This may be more difficult to pin down than the many advocates for a return to a SAWS-style scheme might care to admit. One of the attractions for EU workers to come to the UK under freedom of movement was the potential for permanent residence. If the government is to square the circle over any future seasonal workers' scheme, any path to permanent residence is likely to be a non-starter. Time has moved on since the heyday of SAWS – the economies of those countries from which migrant workers were traditionally recruited are much stronger than previously; and the younger, fitter workers, on whom our farmers depend, view seasonal work as a stepping stone to a better way of life, and 'right to stay' (with the prospect of permanent residence and a British passport) is very much part of this. At the moment, other EU countries are a much more attractive proposition.

Special deal for agriculture

One could argue that, even if we'd voted to remain in the EU, our farmers would still be facing a shortfall of seasonal workers – the fact of us leaving has merely speeded up the inevitable. For those who see themselves as 'European', the UK is no longer the attractive option it once was. Michael Gove indicated in February that the government would support a 'special deal' for agriculture post-Brexit, acknowledging that the NFU had put forward "compelling arguments for a seasonal workers' scheme". Whatever is announced will be, by necessity, a compromise and of limited consolation for farmers worried about this year's harvest. The devil is in the detail and until we know more, the sword of Damocles may well be hovering over next year's harvest too.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.