• Despite the significant political upheaval and headline-grabbing events in the 12 months following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it is fair to say that most of the questions that were raised in the immediate aftermath of the referendum remain unanswered and many of the problems identified early on remain current concerns. Nowhere is this more apparent than within farming and the food industry generally.

    During and shortly after last year’s harvest; politicians, newspapers and representative bodies brought many of the anticipated challenges to the public’s attention and there has been a steady flow of commentary ever since. As we move into the time of year when seasonal workers are needed, these issues will continue to be discussion points in the months to come.

    Following the general election, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, was immediately asked for his views on the challenges the industry faces, including the likely shortage of workers. The farming industry is heavily reliant on non-British workers, many of whom are EU nationals, with many others undertaking seasonal work. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister was critical of leaked reports from the Labour party that it was considering introducing a visa for migrants seeking low skilled, unskilled or seasonal work. It is, however, difficult to see what alternatives there would be to bridge the gap in the labour market should freedom of movement from the EU be restricted (as seems likely). The Government are, however, keeping their cards close to their chest for the time being, albeit with the commencement of negotiations with the EU imminent, this may not be possible for much longer.

    Even if, from a legislative perspective, everything were to be in place to allow seasonal workers from overseas to continue to work in the UK, the next challenge would be to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for them to come to work. In addition to the uncertainty faced by EU nationals living in the UK, the fall in the value of the pound and reports of race-related incidents targeted at foreign nationals will have already contributed to the decision of many workers not to remain in, or apply for seasonal roles in, the UK. Reports suggest that many businesses have already had to increase wages substantially to attract and retain workers in low skilled roles.

    The issue is not restricted to seasonal workers. The food industry has an ageing population, with an estimated need to bring in 130,000 workers simply to replace those who are likely to retire in the next 10 years. If the industry is to be further hit by a sharp decline in foreign workers (approximately 15% of workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries based on a recent report by the Guardian newspaper), it is clear why the longer-term situation is being described as critical.

    Despite the continued uncertainty, there are steps which employers can take to place themselves in a more favourable position to act once a clearer picture develops. Chief amongst these is to carry out an audit of staff and the methods currently in place for recruiting seasonal workers. This will help to identify key areas of risk to the business and develop alternative strategies to mitigate those risks. Initiatives which promote engagement and wellbeing within the workforce are also likely to encourage permanent employees and workers to remain in post as well as encourage seasonal workers to return year after year in a more cost effective way than simply (or solely) increasing wages.

    The industry as a whole must also consider bolstering its numbers in other ways, making jobs and careers in farming and agriculture more attractive to younger members of the domestic workforce. The national focus on apprenticeships and the recently introduced apprenticeship levy may provide greater opportunities to access these individuals, with information readily available to employers online, including through Kent County Council’s excellent Apprentice Kent site.

    When looking at your audits and policies we would recommend that you consider these carefully to future proof your business, if the outcome of your audit is not as expected or your policies need updating then Brachers can assist with your employment and HR issues.

    Antonio Fletcher is a Senior Associate in the Employment Team at Brachers. Please contact the team to discuss any issues raised in this article and the ways in which Brachers and Kent HR can assist you by emailing Antonio or getting in touch on 01622 690691.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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