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Why is there a shortage of workers in agriculture?

Penny Brooks

14th November 2017

UK horticultural farmers rely on being able to employ migrant staff, and usually expect to re-employ the same people year after year when they need them for the labour-intensive harvest. But the National Farmers Union's recent survey shows that, in September, the number of returning workers to farms fell to 16%, its lowest level all year. The returnee rate had been as high as 65% in January. But why are those workers no longer choosing to work here, and why are the farmers so dependent on EU migrant workers, rather than employing UK staff?

The answer to the first question is to do with Brexit, and exchange rates. It's not only because workers from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland no longer feel welcome in the UK, but also because the wages they earn in pounds sterling are now worth less when converted into euros. Try working it out:- 

G's Farm in Cambridgeshire employs 2,500 seasonal workers, working from 7am to 3pm and earning, on average, £350 per week. At the start of June 2016 - before the Brexit vote - the exchange rate was roughly 1.27 euros to the pound - so how many euros would they be earning?

At the end of August 2017, the rate was 1.08 euros to the pound - how many euros would they now be earning?

The answers will explain why those EU migrant workers are now more interested in looking for work on farms in Germany or Italy where they are paid in euros, and so not vulnerable to changes in the exchange rate.

In looking at the question of why the farms are reliant on migrant workers, rather than UK staff, the example of G's Farm is helpful again. They say that it is not pay that is the problem - they pay all their workers the National Living Wage of £7.50 an hour, regardless of their age. The UK government has suggested that the UK farming industry should invest more in apprenticeships to attract more British workers into farming. But the need is for seasonal workers, at times to suit the ripening of the crops, not for permanent staff, and that is the problem; most local jobseekers want full-time employment, not seasonal work. Crucially, those on benefits risk losing them by taking up temporary employment, so they would end up worse off and then have to re-apply for their benefits once the work was finished.

Filling temporary vacancies with students on vacation also doesn't work, as their availability doesn't necessarily match the time at which the workers are needed on the farms.

And finally, with unemployment rates in the UK at an average of only 4.4%, there aren't very many people around looking for work.

The NFU fear that the supply chain could face significant disruption next year, with far fewer migrant workers from the EU, as well as higher wages, meaning that they simply cannot harvest all that they grow. That could only raise the price of the fruit and vegetables they are supplying to the food processing industry and to our supermarkets. G's also has farms in Spain and Portugal and say that they have strategic options: “If we can’t get the labour we need, we could grow in the EU and import into the UK.” That sounds as if it could result in fewer businesses operating in UK agriculture, more imports, and higher prices for food - none of which sound like a good outcome.

Penny Brooks

Formerly Head of Business and Economics and now Economics teacher, Business and Economics blogger and presenter for Tutor2u, and private tutor

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