Brexit, immigration and seasonal workers

Published on
5 min read

Against evidence that net immigration from the EU is continuing to fall, we look at how the Government’s Brexit plans could affect the supply of labour in the food and agricultural sector.

Against evidence that net immigration from the EU is continuing to fall, we look at how the Government’s Brexit plans could affect the supply of labour in the food and agricultural sector. 


We now know a lot more about how EU nationals already settled in the UK will be treated after Brexit. But with the planned exit day of 29 March 2019 only months away, we are still waiting for the Government to reveal details of its post-Brexit immigration policy. 

In the two years since the referendum vote, there is growing evidence of a fall in the number of new arrivals from the EU seeking work in the UK, which is causing labour shortages in a number of sectors of the economy, including food and agriculture. 

What do the current figures tell us about net EU migration?

Precise migration figures to and from the EU are hard to come by, because the UK has no formal registration scheme for EU migrants. The evidence we have is based on passenger surveys and is also subject to a considerable time lag. 
Figures released from the ONS show that net EU migration to the UK has been falling since the Brexit vote. In the year to September 2017, it fell by 75,000, returning to the level seen in 2012. The number of arrivals from the EU decreased by 47,000, but equally significantly the number of EU nationals leaving reached its highest level since 2008. 

While a number of other factors are in play, the ONS acknowledges that “Brexit could well be a factor in people’s decision to move to or from the UK”. It also points out that while net EU immigration is well below its pre-Brexit peak, it is still not low by historic standards. 

How is this affecting the agricultural sector?

There are reports of labour shortages across the country. For example, according to recent research reported in the Eastern Daily Press, applications for National Insurance Numbers by EU citizens in Norfolk were down by 20 per cent in the year to March 2018, when compared to the level of applications in the year prior to the EU referendum vote in June 2016. 

This time last year, a survey by the NFU revealed a similar drop (of 17 per cent) in the number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms. 

The reduction in new arrivals from the EU comes at a time when the UK is still a member of the EU and is open to all workers from the other 27 member states. Naturally agricultural businesses are worried about what happens when these freedom of movement rights are curtailed. 

The doors remain open until December 2020

As previously announced, all EU citizens and their families will be able to apply for settled status if they have been continuously resident in the UK for five years by 31 December 2020. If their application is accepted, it will give them the right to stay indefinitely. Those who arrive in the UK by that date, but have not been continuously resident for five years, will be eligible for pre-settled status, enabling them to remain in the UK until they reach the five year threshold. They will then be able to apply for full settled status. 

Last month the Government revealed further details about how the applications for settled status will work. The Government has promised that the process will be designed to be streamlined and user friendly, with fast-track processing, using an online application portal and optional mobile phone apps. Reassurance has also been given that the default position will be to grant applications, rather than to look for reasons to refuse. However with over 3 million EU nationals currently eligible to apply, it will be a considerable challenge to administer the scheme effectively and fairly. 

There will be a phased roll-out from late 2018 with the scheme open fully by 30 March 2019. 

What happens after 2020?

As things stand, the planned transitional or stand-still period after Brexit day will end on 31 December 2020. After that the rules on migration from the EU will be for the UK government to determine, subject to the requirements of any future trading relationship with the EU. The Government has promised a white paper in September. 
One assumes that the white paper will take into account Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement in February 2018 that he regarded the case for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme as “compelling”. However the DEFRA green paper, published in the same month, is less forthcoming about what, if anything, will replace the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme which was closed at the end of 2013. 

The green paper contains the following summary of its position: 

“Making sure that our agriculture, horticulture, forestry and food supply chain industries have access to sufficient and suitably-skilled labour is essential to industry growth and competitiveness. We will take the opportunity to stimulate a forward-thinking agricultural industry that invests in the future through innovative practice and automation. We want to help attract more of our graduates and domestic workforce into this vibrant industry.” 


If all goes according to plan, the food and agricultural industry will have until the end of 2020 to adjust to the post-Brexit immigration world. What exactly will happen after that should become clearer by the autumn, when we should not only have an immigration white paper, but also a much better idea of what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like. 

It is however fair to assume that the days of a plentiful supply of migrant EU workers who can be hired without any immigration formalities will be over. Like all other UK businesses currently dependent on recruiting workers from elsewhere in the EU, employers in the food and agriculture sector face a period of adjustment. If the DEFRA green paper is anything to go by, the Government expects at least some of the gap to be filled by “innovative practice and automation” as well as increased recruitment of domestic labour. But against the current background of uncertainty, combined with historically low levels of unemployment in the UK, that is easier said than done. 


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