The government is being urged to rethink its decision not to include dairy workers on the MAC shortage occupation list, amid concerns that the new points-based immigration system, announced last week, could cause serious labour shortages.
As of 1 January 2021, the government’s new immigration system will assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions and visas will only be awarded to those with enough points.
The news sparked fears across the farming sectors about how businesses will recruit sufficient numbers of workers, including pickers, packers and dairy workers – which are not classed by the government as ‘highly skilled’.
Now, the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) is in the process of coordinating an industry working group to highlight the impact the new immigration rules could have on the sector. The association warned that larger dairy operators are likely to be most affected as they often rely more heavily on skilled migrant labour.
An RABDF survey in 2016 found more than half of respondents had employed staff from outside the UK in the previous five years – a 24 per cent increase from 2014. Nearly two-thirds said this was down to a lack of UK staff.
More than 50 per cent of migrant workers on dairy farms were classed as highly skilled or mainly highly skilled, but RABDF says the government does not recognise this.
RABDF council member and former chairman Mike King, who runs a herd of 700 cows in south Gloucestershire, says he is already seeing a labour shortage. His workforce is made up of 70 per cent migrant labour and he reports a “gradual deterioration” in the number of applicants for jobs.
“We have been running adverts with no applications regardless of the rate of pay,” he added.
“We had hoped the announcement on the salary threshold would be beneficial but the focus towards the skills angle and with dairying not classed as a skill and not listed on the MAC list is a worry.”
He believes Priti Patel’s statement on filling the labour gap by investing in training ‘economically inactive’ people and using technology, is “misplaced”.
“Robots may have their place, but they do not remove the need for labour,” he explained. “If we had robots on our farm, we would need to have more staff on call than we do now to deal with the breakdowns and problems that arise. Technology on farms will never replace the individual.”
NFU also shared serious concerns over the new policy last week, with president Minette Batters saying automated technology has a “vital role to play” but is “not yet a viable option” to replace the number of staff needed.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme has been expanded to 10,000 places but NFU Scotland said this falls “woefully” short of the 70,000 seasonal workers needed by UK farms.
Minette Batters said: “We are urging the government to commit to delivering a full scheme for 2021, which will enable us to recruit the 70,000 seasonal workers needed on British fruit, veg and flower farms. It is ironic that the government on the one hand is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet on the other hand making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain.
“There are several issues within this proposed policy that need addressing, not least the incredibly short timeframe given for businesses to prepare, and we will be contributing to any consultation to ensure the views of Britain’s farmers are heard.”