We are facing a labour crisis in farming, and that there has been insufficient government action towards making working in the agri-food sector attractive.
Yet the opportunities are ripe for the picking to deliver better jobs and income in a new era of better agriculture, trade, food and environment policy. We need to make farming jobs safe, attractive and worthwhile, and to make it easier for new entrants to get into farming.
Many jobs in farming are physically hard, seasonal, low-paid and precarious, with few of the employment benefits that people working in other sectors take for granted. The food growers that we talk to are worried about their future. As the UK leaves the European Union and immigration policy looks likely to be tightened, many farmers and especially horticulturalists are beginning to ask – who will grow the vegetables and pick the crops?
Read Sustain’s submission to the 2018 EFRA Committee inquiry into farming labour constraints, with extracts below
The following issues highlight a consistent lack of government concern for the agriculture workforce (especially in England) which has meant that we will need to draw on overseas workers (directly or indirectly by importing food) or technology (if available and affordable) to fulfil the needs of the sector:
- We lack an efficient and effective collective sector bargaining body for agriculture workers in England. When the Government removed the Agriculture Wages Board (AWB) in England in 2013 they removed a fair and effective means by which farmers and land managers could agree annual wages, with grades and additional issues such as overtime, housing and sick pay. Wales and Scotland still have agriculture sector wage boards; England did not.
- The new framework for supporting farmers for delivery of public goods should include ensuring a baseline of worker wages (such as the real Living Wage) and labour conditions as criteria for entry into the new support system.
- Fairer supply chain – the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator needs to be extended to protect farmers from unfair trading practices in the whole supply chain, helping farmers and growers better to manage their businesses and be able to provide decent conditions for workers.
- Promoting quality jobs via farm diversity and peri-urban food systems – evidence from across Europe and in the UK confirms that smaller farm holdings are more labour-intensive than larger ones. A diverse and vibrant sector of small farms provides employment, attracting new entrants and incubating entrepreneurs.
- We need better measurement and far more resources to enforce labour standards to eliminate slavery and end worker abuse in the UK food system. A further consideration should be the numbers working overseas to provide food for the UK, protected with stronger modern slavery rules on action and reporting by companies.
As an industrialising country the UK went through the world’s first technology-driven economic transition, and in the present day a further wave of innovation in agri-tech looks poised to decimate the workforce once again. This trend will continue to be reinforced by the government’s policy of promoting agri-technology and encouraging trade patterns that tend to import high-labour products and export low-labour products.
Download Agricultural Labour in the UK, a research report commissioned jointly by Sustain and the Food Research Collaboration
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