Comment: Why migrant labour is essential, Australia-style deal or not

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

After the many months of legislative paralysis and political deadlock, the country has moved to a situation where the government has more than just a working majority.

It says it intends to introduce a ‘points-based’ post-Brexit immigration system, based on the Australian model. The government has been rather fond of inserting Australia in front of things such as ‘Australia-style’ free-trade deal, in an attempt to make them seem relatable or desirable to those who have always touted the merits of being more like Anglosphere countries in the Commonwealth.

The reality is however even stricter than what Australia has; there, immigrants do not need a job offer in order to obtain a visa, but they do need to demonstrate they meet certain criteria.

The implications of the government’s plans are significant, particularly to new starters, because it means more paperwork for those who wish to come into the country and also for those who wish to employ them, and ultimately more paperwork for the government. As well as the job offer requirement, there will also be English language proficiency, and a minimum salary requirement of £25,600. In short, it makes it harder to come to the UK as an EU national.

The government has argued that it will open Britain to the rest of the world and makes it easier for those from outside the EU to come, especially the ‘best and brightest’. This is arguably correct, to some degree at least, but it misses the overall point of immigration from the EU and the crucial role it has played in our economy for decades.

The main driver behind immigration is not the system or the regulations, but the strength of the economy. Immigrants come to work in jobs where is economic growth and immigrants would expect to improve their standard of living over time from working in these jobs – be they short, medium- or long-term immigrants. For the government to make it an aim to attract the best skilled people from around the world is a worthy ambition and it would be hard to argue against this. The fact is however, that there are many job roles across the economy that are not high-skilled, and for the Home Secretary to criticise employers for not investing or upskilling workers, and that employers should simply invest in automation, shows a total misunderstanding of not only how immigration works, but fundamental economics. The Government has failed to take the needs of our industry, and indeed the farming and food production industry, into account.

There is no end of jobs that the ‘brightest and best’ do not want to, and do not do. It was also disingenuous of the Home Secretary to suggest that are eight million 16 to 24-year olds that are “economically inactive”, that could do these jobs. According to the Office for National Statistics, around 2.6 million are students, while over 2 million are long-term sick, 1.89 million are permanent carers for family members and 1.12 million are already retired. This is far from a guaranteed pool of labour, and her own department has said it estimates 70% of EU workers currently in the UK would not meet the requirements if applying under the new system. The £25,600 salary threshold that immigrants must meet is arbitrary in that it does not take regional salary variations into account, or the kind of sector the immigrant may work in.

In our industry, there is already a significant amount of automation, but our high standards of animal welfare, that we are justifiably proud of, means that automation can only achieve so much. There are job roles on farms and in food production that cannot be performed by automation. Despite this over 10,000 people are directly employed in egg production and packing, and a further 13,000 indirectly by the many ancillary businesses that are economically dependent on the British egg industry. Of those employed in egg production on farms, industry data shows 30% are EU migrants, and of those employed in packing centres some 50% are EU migrants.

Migrant labour is essential to the operation of the British egg industry which operates all-year-round. As such, there are no ‘peak-production’ months, and the requirement for seasonal labour is not an issue as it is with other farming sectors. Increasing the size of the scheme for seasonal agricultural workers will not meet the needs of the British egg industry. We need an immigration policy that offers British farms with flexible solutions for recruiting permanent and long-term overseas workers.

The BEIC has written to the Immigration Minister, as well as several MPs with our concerns and hopes that the Government will take these into consideration when introducing the necessary legislation.

 

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