The UK government on Friday announced it is extending a temporary visa scheme for foreign seasonal workers until the end of 2024, while it will gradually reduce the quota from 2023.
The government said it will next year offer 30,000 visas for workers to come to the UK for up to six months to pick fruit, vegetables and flowers, potentially increasing this number to 40,000.
But from the beginning of 2023, the number of visas “will begin to taper down”, the government said, adding that it is demanding “a plan from the sector to cut the reliance on foreign labour”.
The sector must improve pay and conditions, the government said, adding that it was changing the rules of the scheme so that employers must pay a “minimum salary”.
The limited extension “strikes the right balance of supporting the industry while it transitions to employing and prioritising domestic workers,” said Kevin Foster, minister for safe and legal migration.
Following Brexit, as it became apparent that the UK was dependent on migrant labour in various low-paid sectors including agriculture, the scheme was launched as a pilot in March 2019 to recruit non-EU workers.
It was then expanded in December last year with 30,000 visas available.
The government in September also announced it was offering 10,500 three-month visas for lorry drivers and poultry workers to ease a huge shortfall hitting fuel supplies and related industries.
The announcement that visa numbers for agricultural workers will taper down from 2023 was criticised by a farming leader in Scotland, where migrant workers are in particular demand.
Scott Walker, chief executive of National Farmers Union Scotland, tweeted that the government was “sneaking out bad news on Xmas eve”, adding that the announcement that visa numbers will be reduced from 2023 was “devastating news to Scottish soft fruit and veg”.
The National Farmers Union’s vice president Tom Bradshaw, however, in a statement said it was positive that the government was giving growers “clarity over the future of the scheme for the next three years”.
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