• Whether the age of robotics and artificial intelligence fills us with enthusiasm or dread, the potential for automated technologies to transform horticultural production is vast and unbounded.

    The production of fresh fruit, vegetables and ornamental plants is essential to the health and wellbeing of all, yet this vital sector currently relies heavily on a precarious workforce. With the UK’s adoption of agri-robotics and other labour-saving technologies being more evolution than revolution, how do we strike the right balance between manpower and the machine?

    The government has been grappling with this question for some time. On 27 July 2022, DEFRA published its ‘Review of Automation in Horticulture’. This review was aimed at understanding what was needed to speed up the use of automated technologies to improve productivity in horticulture, and how to reduce the sector’s dependence on low-skilled migrant workers.

    The DEFRA review highlighted that the horticultural sector is still heavily reliant on seasonal workers from the EU. With the restrictions placed on immigration following Brexit, it was deemed critical to ensure the continuation of the labour supply from seasonal workers until the next generation of automation has been tried, tested, and implemented.

    At the time of the review, a ‘Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme’ had run from 2019-2022 providing seasonal workers with a route to work in horticulture. Under Boris Johnson, the ‘Seasonal Workers Visa Route’ was announced for 2022-2024 which extended the ability for seasonal workers to work in the sector.

    The review, however, highlighted that the technology currently available will not have a significant impact on the sector’s labour needs in the short or even medium term, and a seasonal workforce must be secured before the next generation of automation can be adopted. Accordingly, it recommended that a longer-term Seasonal Workers Scheme should be implemented post 2024.

    Developments following DEFRA’s review

    There has been an increase in the number of visas permitted for seasonal workers each year in the horticulture sector since the schemes were introduced. The starting point post-Brexit was originally 30,000 visas per year. However, in 2023, the scheme expanded to allow 45,000-55,000 visas per year, after the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) provided evidence to DEFRA detailing the labour needs in the sector.

    Following DEFRA’s review, the House of Commons published a briefing on ‘Seasonal worker visas and UK agriculture’ on 26 June 2023. This highlighted the NFU’s wish for the scheme to be guaranteed for a further five years and noted the union’s estimate that the sector needs 70,000 seasonal workers a year. As such, the expansion of the scheme to 55,000 visas was a ‘step forward’ but the NFU did not go so far as to say this met the labour demand. Therefore, it seems that progress must still be made to guarantee the sector’s future labour requirements.

    What does the future hold for horticultural seasonal workers?

    In June this year, DEFRA published its ‘Independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain’. The review, as expected, emphasised that it is ‘vitally important’ that a new scheme is introduced to replace the one ending in 2024, and that this scheme should be for a guaranteed five years or until a time when the required labour force can instead be provided through our own domestic workforce.

    The department also advised, among other things, that the government should consider lifting the cap on the number of visas and that these should last for a longer period (nine months rather than six due to longer harvesting periods).

    Following the publication of this review, Farming Minister Mark Spencer said that the government ‘will look closely at the findings’ and will respond in the Autumn. No formal response has yet been provided, and as such the future and introduction of a new Seasonal Workers Scheme remains uncertain.

    Given many of our clients are balancing the adoption of new technologies with meeting workforce needs, Brachers’ agricultural law specialists will be following these developments closely.

    Abigail Brightwell is member of Brachers’ dedicated agricultural law team who specialises in employment law.

    This article was first published in the October 2023 edition of South East Farmer.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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