CONSUMERS face higher food prices unless Britain opens up a scheme for foreign fruit pickers to countries outside the European Union (EU), the government’s chief migration adviser warned yesterday.
Nearly 22,000 Romanians and Bulgarians are employed each year, including almost 3,000 in Scotland, under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (Saws), which will close when access restrictions are lifted at the end of 2013.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) found that the British horticulture sector could shrink if farmers fail to find replacement workers, which could trigger a surge in labour costs and ultimately higher prices for consumers.
Professor David Metcalf, MAC chair, said the government should consider proposals for a new scheme that targets non-EU workers, in particular countries which have a high number of agricultural students such as the Ukraine.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (Saws) allows an annual quota of 21,250 Bulgarian and Romanian workers to enter the UK for a maximum period of six months and accounts for one-third of Britain’s seasonal agricultural labour.
It will close at the end of 2013 when Bulgarian and Romanian nationals gain free access to the European labour market and the UK transitional controls on these Eastern European nationals are lifted.
The UK government’s independent advisory body on migration issues said British farmers should be able to recruit a sufficient number of seasonal workers in the first one to two years after working restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted.
But it also found that the horticultural sector could face a lack of available seasonal migrant labour in the medium to long term, driving up fruit prices.
Scottish farmers yesterday said that the seasonal workers scheme should continue beyond 2013 as Romanian and Bulgarian workers made a valuable contribution to the agricultural industry.
Sarah Anderson, parliamentary affairs manager of the NFU Scotland, said: “Seasonal workers from outwith the UK are an invaluable workforce in Scotland’s highly successful soft fruit industry. The Saws scheme was originally focused on students from outside of the EU but has been misused, NFUS asserts, in order to control immigration from new EU member states.
“NFUS believes Saws should continue to operate once the current restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers finish at the end of 2013 as those workers will then be attracted to other sectors.”
The latest figures show that Angus has the most foreign fruit pickers with 1,143 workers followed by Perth and Kinross (966), Fife (468) and Aberdeenshire (292).
Prof Metcalf said that if the labour supply “dwindled” once the scheme closed to Romanians and Bulgarians, operators may have to “drive wages up” to secure staff.
He said: “In those circumstances, therefore, it’s possible that supermarkets would charge higher prices for their celery and strawberries and so on.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We shall consider the MAC’s advice very carefully, but we want to encourage resident labour.”.