Kent berry grower Alastair Brooks says he feels “insulted” by a report on migration published by a government advisory committee.

In its discussion of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS), the migration advisory committee (MAC) report referred to agriculture as “generally low wage and low productivity.” Mr Brooks, who grows raspberries and strawberries at Langdon Manor Farm near Faversham in Kent, said he “felt a bit insulted” by the comment. “I rather like to think we are of value,” he added.

The MAC report said if there is no SAWS, it is likely that there “would be a contraction and even closure of many businesses in parts of agriculture in the short run” as they are currently very dependent on migrant labour.

The MAC report was published after DEFRA and the Home Office announced a visa scheme to recruit 2,500 workers from outside the European Union. Under the pilot scheme, non EU migrant workers will be able to work on farms for six months and then leave the country. The pilot will begin in spring 2019 and will run until the end of December 2020.

The MAC report pointed out that agriculture is the only sector where a separate workers scheme is being offered. “That is a massive leap for this government,” Mr Brooks said. “After all, the rest of the economy – such as the NHS – employs lots of east Europeans. For us to be singled out, the NFU and others have done a spectacularly good job in persuading the government.”

He added that it is easy to be critical of the numbers in the pilot. “But I think it is a very positive move in the current circumstances when we have a government dead against any form of immigration – to the point where they will hurt big lumps of the economy, not just farming.”

This year, Mr Brooks said had been hit by “a perfect storm” – picking raspberries and strawberries in a bit of a hurry during very hot weather with fewer workers than previously. Both fruit are still being picked, and the harvest will continue until the end of October. “We did struggle to finish fields early and had to take some difficult decisions on that.” As well as there being less labour, the quality of staff was lower, too. Finding staff to recruit was harder this year than the previous year. “Last year, we could ring the agent and they would say they could find a few more people quite quickly. This year, the agents were saying they would have difficulty finding people right through until the end of the year.”

At Langdon Manor Farm, about 70% of the work force are people who return regularly from Romania and Bulgaria and 30% are new recruits. But at harvest time, the new recruits are disproportionately high because the pack house is run by returnees and the husbandry work on the farm is all done by returnees – and so the new recruits move up to about 50% of the workforce.

In future, Mr Brooks thinks there will have to be something like a SAWS to recruit 90,000 people across the whole of agriculture, including 30,000 for the berry industry. By then, European workers won’t have preferential treatment in the UK over and above those from the rest of the world. “I think there will have to be a visa scheme for agricultural workers whether or not they are from the European Union.”

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