Written evidence submitted by Cornwall Council (LS0018)
Response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry, “Labour Shortages in the Food and Farming Sector”
5th October 2021
Seasonal Agricultural Workers and their importance to the agricultural/horticultural sector in Cornwall
Cornwall Council is the largest Rural Unitary Authority in England with a population of 573,299. With a higher-than-average age demographic, sea on three sides, a low population density and an economy that does not benefit from the agglomeration impact of a large municipal area we therefore have a more limited local labour market than many other areas of England.
Our concerns relating to access to labour in many sectors of the Cornish economy have been fed in previously to Government on numerous occasions and have recently been discussed with our MP’s in September 21. In common with many areas of England Cornwall faces acute labour shortages in sectors of our economy (health and social care, hospitality, distribution, etc) but this response relates specifically to the agricultural and horticultural sector which represents a greater percentage of our economy than most areas of the UK, see table below.
% Employment in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
% Employment in England
% GVA in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
% in England
Currently over 95% of field operatives are EU nationals with pre settled status or migrant workers who are in the UK under the current Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS- which is still a pilot and has yet to be confirmed beyond 2021 and does not currently cover non-food crops). The jobs on offer tend to be manual in nature and very seasonal and there have been many local and national press reports on this issue that help to illustrate the seriousness of the issue. A selection of these are included in Appendix 1.
In Cornwall the crops involved (predominantly cauliflower, cabbage, daffodils, bulbs, potatoes and courgettes) have long growing periods (e.g. daffodils can be 2 years between planting and harvest and Cauliflower can be up to a 12 month process from seed purchase to harvest) and so the industry has to plan ahead to meet their supply contracts. Doing so when there is no certainty over labour supply for the 2021/22 harvest period is challenging at best and a gamble at worst.
Increasing evidence from businesses in Cornwall would illustrate the seriousness of the situation and the potential long-term impact if access to non-UK based seasonal workers is not resolved. Further background and quotes from businesses can be found in Appendix 1.
After the closure of the governments “Pick for Britain” campaign the DWP and the NFU have teamed up to try and promote jobs in the sector to UK residents Farmers with labour vacancies told to ask DWP for help - FarmingUK News but as yet it is uncertain how successful this has been and the general view is that it will not generate sufficient numbers in the short term. Evidence from local business during 2020 would demonstrate that despite significant initial interest in the roles on offer the number of UK residents who took actually progressed to interview was very low with the number taking up the roles on offer being even lower. One large grower in Cornwall stated that they had over 250 initial enquiries, of which 100 people progressed to interview, of which 33 took up the offer of employment, of which 10 remained in the roles for the harvest season. In addition, it was noted that the productivity of UK resident workers fell below that of migrant workers by a considerable margin.
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw has also recently stated that "For the past 18 months food and farming businesses have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full of nutritious and affordable food, but businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages. At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation's fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34% shortfall in recruitment”.
He also stated that "Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs. It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based”.
To address these concerns the NFU, in partnership with the Food and Drink Federation has called on Government to introduce a short term Covid Recovery Visa, alongside a permanent Seasonal Workers Scheme as an effective route to help the pressing needs of the industry. They suggest that this would give the industry time to invest in the skills and recruitment of a domestic workforce that will help to provide long-term stability. Whilst some UK residents will find roles in the sector the industry view is that they will not replace the bulk of the labour force especially in the short term. With crops in the ground awaiting harvest in the 2021/22 winter period this is represents a significant business risk. Pay rates on offer often exceed other opportunities in the labour market (with £20 an hour possible) but the seasonal nature of the work, the fact that the work is manual/physical in nature and is outdoors are often cited as reasons why UK residents do not want to take up the employment opportunities on offer.
George Eustice MP was quoted in an article in The Times in early January 21 about how he was “pleased that the SAWS scheme was extended in duration into 2021 and of his intent to ensure that it was extended into 2022 and that non-food crops should be included” but this commitment has yet to be delivered and therefore we are concerned that due to the lead times involved in securing staff for the 21/22 Autumn/Winter season any further delay will limit their availability to secure staff.
Key points for the inquiry to consider: -
In terms of how cross-border trade flows with the EU are affecting the food supply chain whilst we recognise the integrated nature of our food supply chains and the need to ensure seamless trade flows in the food supply chain, we are concerned that the revised timetable for the introduction of checks on SPS imports from the EU will mean that checks on our exports will continue to remain in place whilst imported goods will continue to flow without reciprocal checks being in place. At best this position creates additional costs for UK exporters which can reduce their competitiveness in EU markets and at worst it can close export markets for certain goods e.g. shell fish. Therefore, the delay on introducing SPS checks on imports is of concern and any extension should be kept as short as possible.
An important point to note is that if access to seasonal workers for the 2021/22 harvest season is restricted the likelihood will be that cauliflower, cabbage, etc will be imported from the EU to fulfil UK demand whilst UK grown produce is left to rot in the fields due to the lack of harvest staff.
I would be more than happy to provide verbal evidence to the inquiry if that would be useful.
Councillor Stephen Rushworth
Economic Portfolio Holder
Agriculture and Horticulture is more important to Cornwall than other areas. Whilst the sector is a 365 day a year operation the bulk of our crops are grown and harvested when other areas of the UK are unable to do so (i.e. in the Winter months where our average temperatures, low frost incidence and rainfall allow us to use our climatic conditions to our advantage). The reduction/loss in productive capacity in Cornwall will lead to increased imports of vegetables from the EU with the resulting reduction in food security and increase in Carbon footprint.
EU workers with settled status who used to work in agriculture have moved to other sectors that can offer better conditions, higher wages and all year-round employment thus reducing the number available to fulfil seasonal roles. The industry has participated in schemes such as the “Pick for Britain” campaign (now closed by Government) but have reported a very low success rate.
One grower said that they had 250 people express an interest through that scheme. They contacted them all with details but only 100 responded. Of those they were only able to secure 33 people over the summer months and that was to keep a “gang” of 17 in the field at any one time. Once the hospitality sector opened up again, they lost 10 on one day. In addition, the work ethic/rate of this UK gang was in marked contrast to gangs made up of migrant labour. During a 44 day period the UK gang only made the piece rate (i.e. harvested enough crop to get a piece rate that was higher than the minimum wage) on 4 days whereas the gangs that were made up of migrant labour exceeded the minimum wage threshold on every day. The constant change of staff, the failure of some to turn up for work on a regular basis and the need to retrain new staff meant that the UK “gang” also took significantly more management time to manage than their seasonal/migrant colleagues. The conclusion is that the productivity of the UK gang was lower than the other gangs and that as a result the business overall was less productive.
Whilst on the one hand the high unemployment expected due to the Covid 19 pandemic and the end of the Furlough scheme does create a theoretical labour pool for growers none of them relish the thought of using UK based labour as their motivation, physical fitness and commitment is lower than they have experienced with migrant labour. There are exceptions to this rule of course but the following quotes have been received from businesses during August 2021 which illustrates their concerns based on their experiences in 2021: -
The industry in Cornwall and across the UK is still very concerned that the seasonal/migrant labour issue is being caught up in Government discussions relating to immigration when it should be treated separately in their view as an economic issue. DEFRA is fully aware of industry concerns and direct discussions have been had with George Eustice MP who is supportive of their concerns. However, it appears, from the outside at least, that DEFRA’s voice is being crowded out by the Home Office, DWP and the Treasury. The industry in Cornwall is very concerned about the future and they are keen to reiterate that it will take time to reduce the reliance on migrant/seasonal workers. They are also very keen to point out the following key points: -
Governments current immigration policy focusses primarily skills (i.e. qualifications) and key workers but field operatives are not considered for visa’s as they are not an exceptional case, a key worker or possess the sufficient skill levels to justify the minimum salary thresholds. As the roles on offer are seasonal it is not possible to pay the minimum salary rate and as field operatives are often paid on a “piece rate” basis the actual wage paid varies significantly. The industry also suspects that with unemployment rising DWP will not be keen on allowing migrant labour to fill roles that can (in theory at least) be filled by UK residents.
Recent press activity would also support the need to address this matter as a matter of urgency: -
What are we doing about this issue in Cornwall?
Discussions are already underway in Cornwall between farmers, Cornwall College, the LEP skills team, DWP and others to see what can be done with an agreement to pursue the following objectives: -
Daffodil Industry in Cornwall
Brassica Sector (Cauliflower and cabbage as these are the largest elements of vegetable sector. However, courgettes, strawberries, blueberries and potatoes also factor in the mix): -
 Important to note that the term “horticulture” encompasses both food crops e.g. Cauliflowers and non-food crops e.g. daffodils and bulbs. Currently the existing SAWS scheme only covers food crops so growers of non-food crops cannot access labour via the SAWS scheme. Any extension to the SAWS scheme has to cater for the non-food crop sector in order to maximise the benefit to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
 Pay levels on a “piece rate” basis average out at £12 per hour but at certain times of the year pay rates of over a £1,000 per week are achievable.