The Initial Pilot enabled licensed employers to recruit a limited number of migrants to work in the UK under temporary visas in the horticultural sector for up to six months each year.
On 22 December 2020, the government extended the Initial Pilot for a year, with an expanded quota of 30,000 workers and on 24 December 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Home Office announced a further extension of the scheme to the end of 2024 (the Extended Pilot).
Migrant labour issues:
To qualify for a visa under the Extended Pilot, a worker must be aged 18 or over, have a valid passport and have a valid Certificate of Sponsorship (COS) from the proposed employer, who must be an approved scheme operator.
Information on the COS must confirm the following details:
- Job and pay (which must comply with legislative requirements, including those for working time and payment of National Minimum Wage)
- Start date
- Work in an eligible role, namely the farming of vegetables, fruit, vines or bines, mushrooms, bulbs or cut flowers, pot plants, ornamental plants or trees
- Have funds of at least £1,270, or an agreement from the employer to cover the worker’s costs during the first month in the UK to an amount of at least £1,270
- have paid the relevant visa application fee, currently £244, and Immigration Health Charge and provided any required biometric information
- Not fall for refusal under the general grounds for refusal
When in the UK, workers under the Extended Pilot must work in the job specified in the COS and may be permitted to study. However, the scheme makes it clear that it is not a route to settlement in the UK, and workers under the scheme cannot be joined by any dependants, accept a permanent job, work in a second job or receive public funds.
The launch of the Extended Pilot coincided with the publication of the results of the DEFRA and Home Office review of the scheme in the first year of operation. Notwithstanding some positive findings, the review uncovered poor working conditions, allegations of discrimination and mistreatment by employers and inadequate protections and provisions for workers by way of equipment and accommodation.
Despite uncovering many instances of substandard working conditions, the review confirmed that its investigation did not indicate slavery, servitude, forced labour or human trafficking or the committing of offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, conviction for which can carry a sentence of up to life imprisonment.
However, the review concluded that there were clear opportunities for improvement in the sector, and that the reliance on foreign labour held down wages, disincentivised investment and discouraged workers into these roles.
The way ahead
The Extended Pilot sought to address some of the welfare issues raised by migrant workers employed under the scheme by requiring companies to pay workers a minimum wage to improve conditions.
Furthermore, DEFRA is due to publish further proposals to support the sector, including tapering the number of visas for foreign workers from 2023, offering training and career options, investing in automation, and increasing wages.
Nevertheless, and despite the stated aims of the UK becoming a high-skilled, high wage economy and attracting more UK workers to horticulture, labour shortages in 2021 left crops unpicked and directly impacted the UK food supply chain.
Fears abound that the Extended Pilot will be insufficient to fill the estimated 70,000-80,000 roles in the UK horticultural sector. Moreover, it does not address the desperate ongoing shortages of lorry drivers, factory and warehouse workers needed to keep the food supply chain moving.
Commentators suggest that the Extended Pilot – and any reliance on migrant workers in post-Brexit Britain – is a sticking plaster and until such roles attract better pay and conditions, are supported by improved automation and IT and can be opened up to overlooked groups of workers, the situation simply cannot improve.