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18 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:05pm

Why Covid-19 should change the conversation on migrant workers

Millions of migrants, often in low-paid and insecure work, are keeping the UK fed during the pandemic. 

By Andrew Aitken

In light of the coronavirus lockdown, the idea of “key workers” – all those who provide a vital, essential service – has gained traction among both the public and politicians. Crucial tasks are performed by workers across the spectrum, from those typically defined as “high skilled” to so-called “low skilled” workers. Millions are migrants, and while the media’s focus has understandably been on the NHS, 42 per cent of workers in food processing are foreign-born (of whom 64 per cent are from the EU), as are 30 per cent of the food and beverage service sector (42 per cent from the EU), according to figures from the 2019 Labour Force Survey.

As the crisis has shown, the skills of these workers are critically important. And yet, as recently as February the Home Secretary laid out post-Brexit immigration plans aimed at preventing “low-skilled” workers from coming to the UK.  Before the coronavirus crisis, there was already widespread concern about labour shortages in these and other sectors following Brexit. These concerns are now exacerbated by the sudden stop to migrant flows resulting from border lockdowns.

Data from the Labour Force Survey shows that in 2019 about 9 per cent of workers in agriculture were long-term immigrants, a relatively low proportion compared to many other sectors. About four-fifths of those migrants were from the EU. The statistics, however, miss the surge in temporary worker during peak seasons, partly because most live in basic shared accommodation on the farms.

The end of free movement – by which EU citizens have been able to move freely to the UK to live, work or study – as a result of Brexit, and the government’s new immigration policies, announced in February, will mean there is no route for “low-skilled” migrants to enter the UK from 1 January 2021. Under the new system, migrants will have to have a job offer, speak English, and meet a salary threshold of £25,600, among other conditions. While there are exceptions to the salary threshold for some occupations, such as nursing, the new scheme closes the door to workers, predominantly from the EU, who have historically come to the UK for seasonal work.

The government introduced a Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme in 2018 to bring non-EU migrant workers to UK farms. The initial number of  visas per year was recently expanded from 2,500 to 10,000 per year, but this is thought to be well below the number of seasonal workers required. For example, a British Growers Association Survey estimated that about 75,000 non-UK horticultural workers were employed in 2016. The scheme has been designed to complement the EU workforce already travelling to the UK, but once freedom of movement ends on the 1 January 2021 it is not clear whether the scheme will be expanded further or whether it will include workers from the EU. The ongoing disruption to travel may mean that both short and long-term patterns of migration change permanently as the previous inflows of migrant labour, that British farms rely on, dry up.

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As a result of the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, thousands of seasonal migrant workers will be missing from British fields this year. Environment Secretary George Eustice has suggested that the current shortfall could be filled by furloughed workers getting second jobs picking fruit and vegetables. But the agricultural industry is characterised by high flexibility, low wages and poor working conditions. The work is unlikely to be attractive or even feasible for furloughed workers.

Further, while the furlough scheme allows workers to take a second job, this must be outside of the hours they would normally work, and people in cities are often far from where the work is, with poor transport links. Farm industry bodies have launched recruiting campaigns such as Feed the Nation and Pick for Britain but recruitment agency Concordia reported that out of the 36,000 applicants only 112 accepted a job.

The Covid-19 emergency will pass but ministers should look for interventions that will lead to improved labour and health conditions and better wages for workers if they are to attract people to agricultural jobs. The labour shortages caused by the pandemic are a reminder to the UK government that agriculture and food processing are highly dependent on migrant workers.

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The ongoing narrative that defines migrants as either “good” or “bad” depending on their pay packet needs to be challenged. Simply widening the category of “good migrants” by focusing on those working for the NHS and offering them a visa extension is not enough. What about those who feed us or build our homes? Covid-19 is a challenge for government and society to rethink the value of low-paid work, and an opportunity to create a post-Brexit immigration system that recognises the social value of migrants working in essential parts of society, often in low-paid and insecure work.

Andrew Aitken is a senior economist and Chiara Manzoni a senior social researcher at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research