We are now into the start of the period where seasonal migrants come into the country in their tens of thousands to help farmers harvest their crops. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 workers would normally be involved in the effort, with only 10-15 per cent of those being residents or based in the UK. On top of this, it has been suggested that only one third of the usual number of migrant workers arrived in the UK before the lockdown started.
Now, given that the international travel restrictions from both nations and airlines seem set to continue, how will the UK manage to cope with this shortfall in labour? Will crops simply rot, unpicked, across our nation’s farms as the UK is left to starve? Of course not.
Firstly, migration has not fully stopped, as some seasonal workers have still entered the country through chartered flights from companies that are keen to ensure that experienced labour is still available. Of course, these companies are expected to be complying with government regulations and restrictions – and will no doubt do so. But what is the reason for flying in experienced workers? Is it because there is no pool of available workers in the UK? No, of course not.
Around 506,000 young people, aged 16-24, were unemployed in the period of November 2019 to January 2020. Now even at the lowest ebb of civic responsibility or accounting for those with highly workshy attitudes, it is implausible that between 500,000 unemployable young people cannot fill 80,000 worth of jobs. Additionally, it is also estimated that around 10 per cent of workers under the age of thirty have lost their job during the lockdown, further contributing to the availability of workers.
But we should not need to chastise as it appears that the UK has responded admirably to the need for seasonal workers. Websites such as Totaljobs reported a spike of more than 80 per cent in applications for agricultural roles. Indeed reported that the share of UK based searches for agricultural roles more than doubled during April. This would imply that the UK is not and need not be as helplessly reliant on migrant labour, in certain circumstances, as some commentators like to suggest.
The main reason for the need for experienced workers is not to make up any UK based shortfall, but rather to ensure that the eager new British workforce is trained to be as capable as possible – as has been reported by farming companies.
We will get through this and our response to the Covid-19 breakdown of seasonal migration will mean we will not even need to fear the implausible scenario of the EU blocking seasonal migrants from travelling to the UK in the event of our free trade negotiations breaking down. However, as has been made abundantly clear, the UK is not seeking to end immigration but rather streamline it to the nation’s needs. As such, the entry of experienced seasonal workers to help train a new army of British-based workers is simply an early example of the kind of flexibility that we will be able to achieve once we have fully left the strictures of the EU. Of course, this is also not to say that we will not continue to recruit from overseas as, for example, the UK government has recently expanded the scope of its Seasonal Workers Pilot.
Finally, as we are now entering a new phase of lockdown, as we move towards the complete opening back up of society we must think about the future. Before we entered lockdown, the UK employment rate was at a record high with over three quarters of the eligible population in work. Things have got progressively worse as the lockdown has continued; with the Chancellor confirming this week that 7.5 million workers have been furloughed- almost a third of the country’s workforce is now reliant on the government scheme. This means, when including public sector workers, almost half of all employees in the UK are being paid by taxpayers’ money. Therefore, when we can, we must celebrate the willingness of people to take up work that perhaps they had not considered before and congratulate them on doing their part for the country.