Brexit Changes Might Limit Ability to Recruit Essential Migrant Labour

In the UK today, migrants from the EU make up around five percent of the population with an estimated 3.2 million EU residents, 2.2 million of whom are of working age and currently in employment. They play a crucial role in keeping the UK economy afloat, especially within the agriculture industry.

Our local economy also depends on EU migrant workers to keep afloat and profitable. Businesses such as Lutton Farm, a soft fruit farm of around 70ha situated on the boarder of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, employs a large number of EU migrants every year.

Mike Ashby, whose family has farmed their land in the Oundle area for the past 100 years, also employs migrant workers from Romania on his asparagus farm, who he said are ‘honest and hardworking individuals’.

Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union permits freedom of movement for EU citizens between countries within the EU. These individuals have the right to seek employment in another EU country and work there without needing to obtain a work permit. Alongside their families, they can reside in the country and remain there even after their employment has finished. Any individual from an EU nation is entitled to the same benefits as the country’s nationals, such as access to employment, working conditions and all forms of tax or social advantages.

On April 1st 2004 ten nations joined the EU, eight of which were Eastern European nations and are commonly referred to as the A8. This was significant, as membership of the EU comes hand-in-hand with free movement of labour, leading to increased levels of migration to the most prosperous nations in the EU. Many of the A8 nations, including Poland, had lower standards of living and higher unemployment levels than that of the UK.

Twelve years on, 3.2 million EU nationals now live in the UK. Locally, between 2001 and 2011 Peterborough’s population rose by 27,570 to 183,631, mostly as a direct result of migration, with 14,134 coming from eastern and central Europe. More than 6,600 people came from Poland, with another 3,700 from Lithuania.

In additional to local agriculture, large employers such as Ikea and Amazon are a big pull for migrant workers. The Amazon fulfilment centre at Fletton employs more than 1,200 workers. Most of the positions are for stock pickers and packers at advertised rates of £8.00 to £9.76 per hour. Anecdotal comments from transport providers for the workers confirm that the workforce primarily comprises migrant workers. An employee review on Indeed rates Amazon as a ‘wonderful place to work at, good salary and multi-cultural environment. Wonderful co-workers from different countries’.

In the run up to the EU referendum last June, one of the most hotly debated topics was migration. The global war on terror has triggered unprecedented levels of mass migration, most notably from Syria and Afghanistan to Europe. In the UK, many were concerned about what a large influx of migrants making their way across Europe would do to the country’s economy, and the strain it might place on services such as the NHS and the education sector. This was perhaps one of the main factors for those who chose to vote ‘leave’.

On June 23rd 2016 Britain voted to leave the EU, a decision that, when it comes into effect, will mean that we no longer fall under the regulations set out by article 45 and there will no longer be a freedom of movement between the UK and the rest of the EU.

Whilst it is not clear what the new rules on immigration will be post Brexit, according to a study by the Financial Times carried out in June 2016, under the current regulations for non-EU immigration, more than 3 in 4 of Britain’s current EU migrants would not qualify for a work permit in the UK. A staggering 96% of those working in the fruit picking industry would not meet requirements either.

Evidently this would lead to the collapse of the industry, as almost the entire work force would need to be replaced.

Furthermore in 2013, the government stopped the previously successful ‘SAWS’ (seasonal agricultural workers scheme) employment program which provided workers with a six month working contract in the agriculture industry. The terms and conditions of the new temporary contracts have now made this type of employment unattractive to much of the UK workforce.

However the agricultural sector currently relies on the EU in more ways than as a labour supply. Around two-thirds of current UK farming exports are to EU countries and many farmers remain profitable due to this.

Local farmer Mike Ashby believes that the farming industry must make the necessary adaptations to whatever Brexit may bring, to ensure we do not lose the thriving industry that is farming. He said: ‘We are quite a vibrant industry, but also a streamlined industry with quite tight margins.’ Currently the UK is 62% self-sufficient in terms of consuming the food we produce, however, he said: ‘I think it is really going forward that we try and become, say 80% self-sufficient.’ He believes that leaving the single market could lead to increased export tariffs and subsequently a collapse in profit margins.

National supermarkets as well as consumers have a significant role to play in the implementation of this goal. We should all make a conscious decision to ‘back British’ when it comes to buying food supplies. Mr Ashby said: ‘There will always be a threat from cheap imports’.

Indeed, we have already seen proof that the public feels strongly about this issue. Supermarket chains Aldi, Lidl and Morrison’s have seen increased sales since they made the decision to ‘back British’ and only sell British lamb.
Mr Ashby was concerned that without the necessary precautions to protect farmers, the agricultural industry could collapse, meaning the UK would suffer a detrimental loss, both to a rich part of our national heritage and to the economy, which would feel the effects of the loss of the £108 billion turnover produced by farming per annum. There are already many insecurities within the farming business due to its seasonal nature and the ever-changing cost of food due to supermarket ‘price wars’.

With regard to sustainability, migrant workers are essential to ensuring that food production in the UK remains a thriving and profitable industry, to prevent the market from being flooded with cheap imports of a much lower quality than UK-produced products.

In his view, migrant workers are an invaluable asset. ‘We wouldn’t have the horticultural industry without eastern Europeans.’ This will certainly ring true if farmers come under pressure to become more self-sufficient as a result of high EU export tariffs.

Looking towards the future Mr Ashby said: ‘Farmers are custodians of the countryside and are just passing it on to the next generation, hopefully in a slightly better condition than they found it, but the farming industry feels very insecure, and quite rightly so, about where it is going. We rely on trade massively.’

Ruby Goodall
December 2016