Employer involvement in post-Brexit migration policymaking: the case of UK horticulture

Sam Frederick Scott

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘The entanglement of employers and political elites in migration policymaking: the case of Brexit and the revival of UK horticulture’s guestworker scheme’.

The UK has faced considerable labour shortages following the Brexit vote and the Covid-19 pandemic. Horticulture is one sector that has been particularly vulnerable, with fears of crops being left to rot in the fields commonly aired. In a new Evidence and Policy research article I look at the public pressure employers put on government, and indeed were invited to put on government, as post-Brexit migration policy emerged. I conclude that, in the case of horticulture, migration policy was made through the intimate entanglement of employers and political elites and that employers got what they wanted: a new seasonal guest worker visa scheme. This new scheme is unprecedented in its scale (up to 40,000 workers) and as broad as possible in scope (potentially global). However, despite this, concerns still remain over continued harvest labour shortages in 2022 and beyond.

For decades, UK horticulture has been reliant on migrant labour, like horticultural sectors across high-income economies. It has been estimated that 98% of seasonal agricultural workers in the UK come from elsewhere in Europe. The Brexit vote on 23rd June 2016 challenged this reliance by essentially ending free movement of EU labour into the UK on 31st December 2020. Paradoxically, Brexit sentiments were strongest in rural areas (in England at least) whilst rural horticultural businesses had, at the same time, become reliant upon Polish and, latterly, Bulgarian and Romanian workers to get the harvest in. The critical question employers and policy makers faced after the Brexit vote was how to prevent labour shortages in sectors like horticulture where the reliance on low-wage and temporary/seasonal EU labour was so high.

In public the UK government was reluctant to open-up the possibility of new low-wage migration after Brexit given the vote was linked to anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by the Brexit campaign. The focus on a point-based migration system by the Home Office demonstrated the desire to emphasise skilled higher-paid migrants first and foremost. However, the UK government soon invited employers to feed into various parliamentary inquiries and in my Evidence and Policy article I show how the voice of the horticultural sector was weighty, clear and consistent. The sector wanted a revival of the ‘SAWS’ (Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme) guestworker visa that existed in the UK from around 1943 to the end of 2013. SAWS was eventually axed because the UK government felt ‘unskilled and low skilled labour needs should be satisfied from within the expanded EEA labour market’ (UK Immigration Minister Mark Harper in 2013). With Brexit, this EEA labour market argument no longer applied.

Academics like Freeman, Statham and Geddes, Consterdine and Somerville and Goodman have debated for some time the degree to which migration policy is shaped by employer influence or political elites. In the event employer pressure on government, that the UK government invited on itself, has helped to underpin the development of a new seasonal worker visa that is much larger than the former SAWS visa and now global in scope. This is a classic case of employers and political elites being entangled together in the policy-making process rather than one set of interests holding sway. It is also illustrates how governments may adopt a hard-line approach with respect to immigration, especially low-wage migration, but actually engage in selective expansion for fear of labour shortages and for a lack of viable (or cheaper) alternatives. Despite all this, however, horticultural employers do still fear that crops may be left to rot: an issue that has come to a head in 2022 given the reliance on Ukrainian migrants to now fill the seasonal worker visas.

Since 2013 Dr Sam Scott has held the position of Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Gloucestershire.



You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Scott, S. (2022) The entanglement of employers and political elites in migration policymaking: the case of Brexit and the revival of UK horticulture’s guestworker scheme. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16445087491820.

Image credit: Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

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