Last Wednesday (February 19) UniteLive highlighted the government’s new ‘points-based’ immigration system. Now, we investigate further with a series of features about what these new plans will mean for a range of sectors. In part one of our series, we look at how the proposed system will affect food, drink and agriculture.
Most of us take affordable food for granted – we assume that staples like fruit, veg, meat and dairy will always readily available, only a quick walk to the shop away.
Sitting down to tuck into a meal, we often don’t think of the great, invisible architecture that keeps the food and agriculture industry ticking, from the fields to the factories to the machinery, the lorry drivers to the pickers and packers. Take any one piece out and the whole thing falls apart.
By far, the largest piece of the puzzle in bringing food to our tables is the workforce – a majority of whom are EU migrant workers. In the poultry industry, for example, about 60 per cent of workers hail from the EU.
Despite their vital contribution, in 2018 the agriculture sector as whole faced significant labour shortages of 10 to 20 per cent. Now such shortages are set to balloon after the government’s new ‘points-based’ post-Brexit immigration system comes into force next year.
Replacing freedom of movement which enabled any EU worker to live and work freely in any EU member state, the UK’s new system from next year will bar all migrant workers who take on jobs paying less than £25,600, with few exceptions.
In practice, this means the vast majority of jobs in food, drink and agriculture will be off limits to migrant workers, many of whom possess the unique skills desperately needed by Britain to produce its own, home-grown food.
The British Poultry Council explained just how damaging the impact will be, noting that the new immigration system will have a “crippling effect on our national food security”.
“I hope the Government understands that the food on their dinner tables is produced in large part by the people who their proposed immigration policy will prevent from coming to this country,” said BPC chief executive Richard Griffiths.
“The current immigration proposals don’t recognise the real needs of this country,” he added. “8.4 million people in the UK are still ‘too poor to eat’. Securing British food for future generations must be a national priority. We cannot run the risk of creating a two-tier food system where we import food produced to lower standards and only the affluent can afford high quality British produce.”
Unite regional convenor Iulian Firea, who first moved to the UK from Romania to work at the 2 Sisters food processing plant in Wolverhampton, agrees.
“When I first read about the government’s new ‘points-based’ immigration system I was shocked,” he said. “It’s totally bonkers.”
Iulian pointed out that of the 70 points needed to secure work in the UK under the new system, he would personally only score 40.
“I wouldn’t be allowed in under the new system,” he said. “The salary cap in particular will smash the entire food and agriculture sector. It would be great if this served as a wake-up call to businesses, who might pause and think ‘Ok we need these workers – let’s increase salaries so we can attract the labour we need’. But it won’t happen.”
Iulian said he’s especially incensed by the government deeming roles in agriculture and other industries ‘unskilled’.
“There is no job done without skill,” he said. “But the government fails to consider jobs where physical demands are higher. If these jobs in, for example, agriculture and construction are so unskilled, why do we have labour shortages? It’s because so few people have the skills to do these jobs.”
Iulian dismissed the government’s argument that automation can fill the gaps left in the food and agriculture workforce after the points-based system comes into force.
“This is utterly delusional. Of course, automation can be a welcome development, if they make jobs in the sector more efficient and easier. But you still will need a large human workforce. Much of our work simply cannot be automated at this stage.”
Iulian said he’s not against immigration controls in principle.
“But control should mean equality; it should mean fairness. To place limits on migrant workers that aren’t placed on your own citizens — it’s very divisive. The standards are not equal.”
“I also agree about the importance of being able to speak English,” he added. “We need it. It’s good for communication, it’s good for our communities, for health and safety. But there needs to be a transition. You can’t force through such radical changes in only one year. You may have brilliant, hard-working people who the UK will miss out on because they can’t meet these requirements.”
The new rules, Iulian went on to say, will make the UK a very unattractive place to work and do business as he predicts the country will lose its competitive edge.
“People simply won’t come,” he said. “The UK is not the best or the worst country for migrant workers — however there are many other choices in Europe and beyond. If migrants still have a large range of choices, they’ll take their labour elsewhere. The UK will not be able to pick and choose from the workers it needs to fill these jobs.”
As the new rules come into force next year, Iulian argued that Unite must redouble its efforts to support migrant workers. He has great hopes for a motion from Unite’s food, drink and agriculture sector which has been accepted to be put forward in the union’s upcoming policy conference this summer.
The motion calls on Unite to develop an online forum for migrant workers as part of a larger support system for them.
“Unite must be more proactive in reaching out to migrant communities — not just online but on the streets and in our communities,” Iulian noted. “The union must be seen to be everywhere throughout the UK to show migrant workers that they’re not alone.”
Above all, Iulian calls on the government to reconsider its immigration plans.
“The day will come when people can’t put fruit, veg or meat on the table — no potatoes, no tomatoes, nothing,” he said. “And then the government will wonder, ‘What happened?’ We need a new immigration tier for so-called ‘low-skilled’ workers so we can meet the country’s labour demands. There simply aren’t enough willing and able UK workers at present to fill that gap. The government has got to get real.”
Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson agreed.
“Migrant workers, from the EU and elsewhere, make an enormous contribution to this country, both economically, socially and culturally – something this new points-based system utterly fails to recognise. We need a sensible immigration system, one that takes into account the unique labour market needs of each and every sector, not one that pits workers against each other, by deeming some jobs ‘skilled’ and others ‘unskilled’. The government’s plans are utterly unrealistic – and will prove extremely damaging to the UK’s food security.”