Robots v seasonal workers: a new fix for an old problem?

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Is Brexit the main cause of the lack of seasonal workers?

A headline from the Guardian earlier this month read, “They say after Brexit there’ll be food rotting in the fields. It’s already started”. This article was one of many referring to concerns over the shortage of seasonal workers, but would this have been an issue irrespective of the result of the referendum last year?

Brexit has brought the problem to the fore, but the question now is how are the needs of the food and farming sector to be balanced against the Government’s apparent drive to reduce net migration post-Brexit? This article explores the specific areas affected, the extent of the current shortage and whether there are any viable alternatives available, particularly in view of the current moves towards increased automation and driverless vehicles.

The CLA surveyed its members earlier in the summer and reported that, since Brexit, 44 per cent of those surveyed had experienced a reduction in the availability of migrant labour of the past year. 90 per cent of those surveyed did try to recruit locally, but found it difficult to find British workers to fill the posts.

But this is nothing new. Those businesses reliant on seasonal workers (such as growers of fruit, salad, vegetables, potatoes and food processing businesses) have been reporting problems with recruiting sufficient seasonal workers for some time and in 2016 a survey by the NFU, revealed that growers were facing a real struggle to source enough seasonal workers to meet their needs. Minette Batters (NFU deputy president) described the shortage as being a “red alert” in a Famers Weekly article published in the run up to Christmas 2016.

Even before the EU referendum, there were concerns about the decreasing availability of seasonal workers. These appear to have been triggered by the ending of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) in 2013, with the Migration Advisory Committee reporting in 2013 that alternative sources of seasonal workers may need to be considered by businesses operating in the horticultural sector.

As a result of SAWS ending, the NFU commissioned a survey of their horticultural and potato growing members which found that, even in 2015, nearly one in three respondents “experienced problems securing an adequate supply of seasonal workers to meet their needs”, with nearly half of the respondents from the fruit sector experiencing most difficulty. Respondents reported that they expected the availability of labour to decrease over the period between 2016-2018. It seems as though these fears were not unfounded.

It has been widely reported that the impact of the continued and increasing seasonal labour shortage will be that food prices will increase and the availability will decrease, as food “rots” where it is grown or businesses move their operations to Eastern Europe.

In July 2016, the House of Commons Library published a briefing paper called “Migrant Workers in Agriculture”. The paper summarises the various views from bodies such as the NFU and the ADHB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) and indicates that the UK is not alone in sourcing seasonal workers from other countries – one example cited is the USA, which sources labour from Central American and Caribbean countries. The paper also reports that the Government is denying that businesses are having difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in April 2017 warned that current problems could “turn into a crisis if not addressed”. The committee did not accept the government’s assurances that there are no existing labour shortages and noted the NFU’s comments that Government statistics did not include seasonal workers and were not industry specific. It appears that the measurements that the Government are using may be flawed, and there is a risk that the Government will not take this problem sufficiently seriously in the run-up to Brexit.

The NFU has also made it clear that seasonal workers are not part of the perceived “immigration issue” and the workers’ roles are imperative to the success of the British farming industry.

The House of Commons paper also refers to the SAWS that was in operation before Romania and Bulgaria became EU member states. The CLA have already called for a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme to be introduced “immediately” and not wait until after Britain has left the EU.

However, it begs the question of whether this will help? The devaluation of sterling and the improvement of economies in those European countries that used to be the source of many seasonal workers are factors that will not disappear.

So what is the solution? The ADHB suggests that part of this may lie in increasing automation. In April, the Financial Times reported that robots may start to carry out more basic functions. The reality is that some of these robots are already on the market, but they are still not fully automated.

Also, the up-front cost may be seen as prohibitive at a time when the income of farming businesses has taken a significant hit over the last few years and there is the looming threat of the loss of subsidies post-Brexit. Harper Adams University are aiming to become a “world first” in farming a field exclusively using robotics. They believe there is “no technical barrier to automated field agriculture”. The progress of the experiment will be noted with interest, no doubt.

With the average age of the UK farmer being close to 60, is there an appetite in the industry to embrace this new and potentially expensive technology? Is the support in place for a farmer who, in the middle of harvest, is the victim of a cyber-attack or a technical breakdown, and because the technology is relatively niche, will there be quick and easy assistance available?

Our technology lawyer explores the legal responsibilities and risks around the use of robotics in agriculture further in her article here.

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