Visa options for farm workers introduced
Pre-Brexit, EU nationals were able to move and work freely within Europe. While farm labour shortages have been an issue for several years, there is no doubt the situation has worsened since Brexit restricted the influx of seasonal workers.
Now freedom of movement has come to an end, the number of EU nationals in employment in the UK fell by almost 5% – from 2.3m to 2.2m – since the end of 2019 to the end of June 2021, according to official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
As a consequence of Brexit, the EU Settlement Scheme was created to secure the rights of European Economic Area (EEA) nationals and their families living in the UK by 31 December 2020.
Applicants acquire either settled or pre-settled status, depending on whether they have lived in the UK for five years or more, or less than five years respectively.
While this has been helpful to securing an existing pre-Brexit workforce, it does not fully help with the labour shortages in the agriculture sector as historically, many seasonal workers from the EU would travel to the UK for a particular season and then return home.
Some farms have hit the headlines for offering workers £30 an hour to pick produce, which shows how difficult recruitment has become since the UK’s departure from the EU.
To try and ease workforce shortages, the government has introduced a seasonal worker visa and, more recently, announced a temporary visa scheme for HGV drivers and poultry workers. There are also numerous other visas and permits farming businesses may be able to benefit from.
Temporary Seasonal Worker visa
Short-staffed farmers are claiming they need more migrant workers to harvest their crops, which is classed by the government as “low-skilled” work.
Pre-Brexit, the majority of these workers would typically come from the EU on a seasonal basis; in October 2020, the National Farmers Union said only 11% of seasonal workers in 2020 were UK residents.
In response, the government introduced a Seasonal Worker pilot scheme in 2019, initially for two years. It was extended in December 2020 for a further year.
The Seasonal Worker visa enables the recruitment of a limited number of temporary migrants – 30,000 in 2021 – for specific roles in the edible horticultural sector. This means that, in order to meet the requirements for the visa, the type of produce being farmed must be either: protected vegetables, grown in glasshouse systems; field vegetables grown outdoors; soft fruit grown both outdoors or under cover; top fruit; vines and bines; or mushrooms.
Workers must apply through an operator that has been approved by Defra and the Home Office, which will sponsor migrants for UK visas. Currently, there are four licenced operators: AG Recruitment and Management Ltd, Fruitful Jobs, Concordia Ltd, and Pro-Force Ltd.
Once a temporary Seasonal Worker visa has been secured, workers are able to come to the UK to carry out their specified farm work for a maximum of six months in a 12-month period. They aren’t able to bring dependents with them and there is no route to settlement.
While this will help the sector in the short-term, it doesn’t go far enough as only specific roles are covered. At some point, it’s likely this route will be pulled altogether too.
Skilled Worker visa
Farmers looking to recruit “skilled workers” could sponsor an EEA or non-EEA national via the government’s skilled worker route.
Employers must check whether the job they are recruiting for is eligible for this type of visa. They can do this by finding the job’s occupation code via the ONS’ occupation coding tool and checking this against the government’s Skilled Worker visa eligible list.
In the agricultural sector, skilled workers could include farm managers or owners, agricultural contractors or technicians, crofters, farmers, herd managers, arboricultural consultants, bee farmers, gamekeepers, and poultry butchers or processors, according to the list.
If the job is eligible for the skilled worker route, the salary paid must be at least £25,600 per year, £10.10 per hour or the ‘going rate’ for a particular role – whichever is the highest. In some circumstances, sponsors may be able to offer a lower salary if certain criteria are met, but no lower than £20,480.
Workers must also prove they can read, write, speak and understand English to at least level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
Skilled Worker visa applicants will need a job offer from a farm willing to employ them before they can apply. The first step for a farm is, therefore, to secure a Skilled Worker sponsor licence, which enables a business to issue certificates of sponsorship to applicants so they can get their visa.
Applications for a sponsor licence can be done online. They require a business to prove it is a genuine employer with a lawful trading presence in the UK, as well show it can offer genuine employment that meets the skill and salary thresholds of the skilled worker route.
The Home Office also requires the organisation to nominate certain individuals, primarily based in the UK, to take on roles – including an authorising officer, key contact and level 1 user – in respect of the sponsor licence.
There is a fee involved too, which depends on the size and type of organisation. Medium and large businesses are required to pay £1,476, which reduces to £536 for small sponsors.
Once a licence is approved, which usually takes around eight weeks, it will be valid for four years with the option for renewal. The application fee will be payable each time the licence is renewed.
Larger employers sponsoring migrant workers are likely to have a dedicated team dealing with sponsorship duties. However, a lot of agricultural businesses are small, family-run organisations, so the entire process can be very admin-heavy.
Temporary visa scheme
Last month (September 2021), the government announced temporary visas for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to attempt to ease the supply chain burdens both in the haulage and food industries.
The move aims to ensure HGV drivers will be able to come to the UK for three months in the run-up to Christmas, providing short-term relief for the haulage industry. It also hopes that farmers and food producers will have access to the necessary workforce to mitigate any potential risks to Christmas food supply.
Since then, the CLA has also called on the government to step in and support the pig sector, which is experiencing labour supply issues at pork processing plants.
Temporary visas are not a long-term solution and are part of the government’s package in an attempt to resolve an existing problem that has been aggravated by both Covid and Brexit.
How the visa scheme will work in practice and whether a temporary visa will in fact relieve the pressure on supply chains just before the festivities will no doubt be revealed over the upcoming weeks.
Frontier Worker permit
The Frontier Worker permit was launched in December 2020 via the Citizens’ Rights (Frontier Workers)(EU Exit) Regulations 2020 to enable cross-border EEA citizen workers to continue with their flexible arrangements, without having to make applications under the post-Brexit points-based system.
A person is a Frontier Worker if they were immediately before the end of the transition period (11pm 31 December 2020) and have been continuously since the end of the transition period an EEA national; not primarily resident in the UK; either a worker in the UK, a self-employed person in the UK or a person treated as a worker or self-employed person in the UK by virtue of regulation 4 of the Regulations.
Applicants will be regarded as being not normally resident in the UK if they have been in the UK for less than 180 days in the 12-month period before the relevant date; or they have returned to their country of residence at least once in the last six-month period or twice in the 12-month period before the relevant date, unless there are exceptional reasons for not having done so. The relevant date can be any date from the end of the transition period.
Applicants need to demonstrate the work they carry out is genuine and effective and not marginal and ancillary to their situation as a whole in the UK.
As a Frontier Worker must have worked in the UK before the end of the transition period and continued to do so since the end of the transition period, the permit is quite limited. Someone new to the labour market wouldn’t be able to apply, for example.
There is the potential for farm businesses to benefit from this route, but it does depend on a worker’s circumstances as it won’t help everyone.
Youth Mobility Scheme visa
Those aged 18 to 30 who want to live and work in the UK for up to two years can apply for a Youth Mobility Scheme visa, providing they have £2,530 in their bank account to show they are able to support themselves.
The visa is currently only eligible for a British Overseas Citizen, British Overseas Territories Citizen, British National (Overseas) or nationals from Australia, Canada, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino. Nationals from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan must apply for a ballot to receive an invitation to apply for the Youth Mobility Scheme visa. Nationals from Iceland and India are soon to be added to the list. There is no sponsorship required by a business employing someone via this visa route.
The Youth Mobility Scheme visa tends to be utilised by young people without their own families who want to travel around the UK. An applicant will not be eligible if they have a child under the age of 18 who is either living with them or financially dependent upon them. Youth Mobility visa holders are eligible to work to support themselves, so there is the potential for farmers to benefit from this.
Many farms have said the shortage of labour has made their business unviable and the National Farmers Union has repeated calls for more support from the government. In response, a spokesperson said the government was looking at ways to help the sector recruit more domestic labour.
The temporary measures that have been introduced may help the industry in the short-term, but many believe they won’t work to solve the problem in the long-term.
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