'We want highly motivated, good people coming into pig farming, wherever they are from' - Zoe briefs MPs
8th Feb 2017 / By Alistair Driver
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies made a powerful case for retaining access to permanent, unskilled labour post-Brexit, when she gave evidence to MPs on Tuesday.
Addressing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, Zoe also stressed the long-term need to make agriculture a more attractive place for workers from the UK and abroad.
She was giving evidence to EFRA's inquiry into labour constraints in the agricultural industry alongside Chris Chinn, from horticulture business Cobrey Farms and David Brown, from the Horticultural Trades Association.
The hour-long session can be viewed on the EFRA website.
While much of the focus from MPs and the horticulture representatives was on the prospect of rekindling seasonal worker schemes, such as the now defunct SAWS, Zoe stressed that the pig industry faced a different situation.
Permanent unskilled labour
"We require permanent, unskilled labour as opposed to seasonal," she said, stressing that unskilled did not mean 'without skill' but rather not educated to degree level.
"That is an important distinction to make as we are completely reliant on that (form of labour)."
She highlighted the NPA's survey showing that 58 per cent of businesses across the pig supply chain employed at least one migrant worker, with nearly 20 per cent employing between 11 and 50.
Nearly half would not survive or would be forced to make changes to how they operated without migrant labour.
Zoe added that pig sector was often 'not seen as a particularly attractive sector for people to work in', seen as low paid, which is not the case, and involving unsociable hours and hard work in rural locations.
"What has happened over a long period of time, and this is not anything to do with Brexit, is that the UK workforce finds it easier to find jobs elsewhere, rather than working in agriculture and, of course the Eastern Europeans have filled that void for us," she told EFRA chair Neil Parish.
"The Eastern Europeans will live here and bring families here. The concern they have is that they don't know whether they are going to be able to stay, in addition to the fact that a lot of them have lost 20-30 per cent as a result of the currency issue. They want to know if they are still welcome."
Solutions to the problem
Zoe highlighted steps NPA would like to see the Government take to address the problem post-Brexit, including reinstating Tier 3 of the 5-tier points based system for immigration on non-EU nationals. This would allow low-skilled workers filling specific temporary labour shortages to come in as a short term solution.
But any future migrant labour schemes must also encourage full-time workers to come and live in the UK, rather than focus purely on short-term seasonal work, as previous schemes have, she stressed.
And any visa system put in place must not so complicated or protracted as to deter potential workers. "We want to make it as easy as possible for those people who should rightly and need to come here to be able to do so," she said.
"Longer-term, we need to work with the Government on getting younger people into agriculture. We need to promote agriculture as a good industry to be a part of, not just in the UK but we want highly-skilled, highly motivated, good people coming into agriculture, wherever they are from."
She highlighted the steps the NPA was taking to promote agriculture as a 'career of choice' in the UK, including the employer-led Trailblazer apprenticeships, encouraging graduates, such as the Harper Adams Pig Scholarship and working with the allied trades on careers in pig farming.
NPA is about to start working with FACE (Farming and Countryside Education) on their plans to engage children and adults in agricultural issues.
A lack of Goodwill
Zoe also managed to put some pressure on Home Office Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill to engage more openly on the issue.
She told the MPs how the NPA was involved in 'a lot of active duscussion' across Government on Brexit, including with Liam Fox's Trade Department and Defra, while NPA has been invited to Downing Street later this month for a meeting with Brexit Minister David Jones.
But she described the response from Mr Goodwill to a joint NPA-poultry industry letter outling industry post-Brexit labour concerns, in which he simply stressed that immigration was a Brexit priority, as 'the most disappointing response' from all the Minsiters contacted.
"The others have all asked to engage with us. Robert was the only one that did not. We would desperately like to get in and talk to him about some of the ideas we have got, and really to get agriculture on board. Half of the concern we have is that agriculture will be forgotten."
At which point, Mr Parish turned to his colleagues on the committee and suggested 'perhaps we should try and get him here', while another MP agreed Mr Goodwill's stance was 'disappointing'.
All in all a very constructive hour for NPA.