Fenland-based specialist agricultural accountants Moore Thompson says the axing of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) could hit local growers.
Under SAWS, UK fresh produce suppliers could employ 21,250 seasonal migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria for up to six months at a time. SAWS specified that workers must be provided with accommodation and paid the agricultural minimum wage.
However, the government has now abandoned the scheme saying that in a time of unemployment, there should be sufficient workers from within the UK and the EU to meet labour demands.
Andrew Heskin, a partner in the firm’s Farming Sector team, said: “Axing the scheme could have serious consequences for our farmers and growers who rely on seasonal migrants to bring in their harvests.
“There is a real concern that by closing the scheme migrant workers will be attracted to other industry sectors such as construction or hospitality.
“This could have a serious impact on the sector and potentially lead to financial difficulties for our growers.
“They will need to source employees from elsewhere which could result in increased overheads and reduced cashflow.”
The British Growers’ Association (BGA) have called for an urgent review, particularly as the £3.7billion fresh-produce sector employs around one-third of its seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania.
BGA chief executive James Hallet said: “The decision not to establish a replacement scheme was at odds with the advice of the government’s own independent Migration Advisory Committee, which warned earlier this year that without SAWS, the UK horticulture sector could face contraction, increased imports and 10-15% higher fresh produce prices.”
In a written statement, Mark Harper, Minister of State for Immigration, said: “We do not think the characteristics of the horticulture sector, such as seasonality and dependence on readily available workers to be deployed at a short notice, are as different from those in other employment sectors as to merit special treatment from a migration policy perspective.”
He added that from January next year, growers would have unrestricted access to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals after transitional labour market controls were lifted.