An Easter Crisis?

In the UK, seasonal labour has always played an important role in keeping many industries ticking along – agriculture, logistics, healthcare, manufacturing – the list goes on. But the impact of Brexit, coupled with a global pandemic, has caused an even bigger strain on the UK labour market.

What does this mean in real terms? Take last Christmas for example – retailers, farmers and manufacturers alike warned of major shortages and empty shelves. With a substantial shortfall of workers to fill crucial roles in retail, logistics and poultry farming, the UK government had to fill the gap – and fast! Under the Temporary Workers route, 5,500 temporary visas were made available for poultry workers, and 5,000 additional short term visas for HGV drivers to transport fuel and food. Overseas workers provided vital support to the UK’s supply chains – ensuring turkeys made it to our tables.

Temporary solutions like these do help to solve the problem in the short term. But with Christmas only just behind us, recruiters are once again bracing themselves for the year’s busiest hiring period – April to June. There remains a genuine concern as to whether enough people can be hired to fulfil the country’s needs.

Against an already rather turbulent backdrop, what workforce issues can we expect to face in 2022 and beyond? And how can recruiters ensure that as many visas as possible are filled?

The UK is reliant on overseas workers – but is this feasible?

It’s clear the UK has a real need to employ overseas workers, particularly when it comes to supporting UK food production. The National Farmers Union (NFU) estimates that the demand for seasonal workers this year could be as high as 55,000. Farmers who were once reliant on an overseas workforce during the busy harvest season are finding, post-Brexit, that many EU workers prefer to remain in Europe, where they still benefit from free movement and higher wages.

Whilst the Seasonal Workers Pilot, which launched in 2019, has played a key role in helping to encourage overseas workers to come to the UK to work, it’s still not enough to fill the gaps. Originally set up to recruit 2,500 temporary workers from non-EU countries, in 2020 the scheme was extended to 10,000 workers, and this year 30,000 visas will be made available – with the potential to increase by an additional 10,000 if required.

Even with these increases, the scheme still falls short of NFU’s estimates. Tom Bradshaw, NFU’s vice-president, believes that labour shortages are “rife across the whole food supply chain”. And with the scheme set to taper out from 2023, how will recruiters be able to support the sectors that are so reliant on workers from overseas?

Ensuring positive experiences

With our reliance on an international workforce showing no signs of abating, the recruitment sector and surrounding partners must find ways to encourage people from overseas to work in the UK. The best way of doing this is to ensure that those workers who come to the UK to work temporarily – and to support our economy – have the best possible experiences whilst here.

Concordia is one of just two organisations selected by the UK government for the original Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme, and has expertise in recruiting for the agricultural sector. Simon Bowyer, Concordia’s CEO explains: “There is huge demand for labour on UK farms and even with the Seasonal Workers Pilot, we don’t think we will be able to find enough settled workers to make up the numbers that are required. It certainly wasn’t the case last year when there was still a shortfall. We believe more needs to be done to encourage EU and non-EU workers to want to come to the UK to work, and to stay here long term.”

Concordia’s mission is to support people to develop their skills and gain experiences in order to thrive – viewing those that they work with as valued members of their global community. All seasonal workers are interviewed and thoroughly screened to ensure that they understand the work that they will be undertaking and their expectations are accurate. Each worker is given a membership pack including a comprehensive and bespoke travel insurance policy, a sim card with pre-loaded credit and wrap-around support. Each farm they work with is audited at least once a year to ensure that they are compliant and working and living conditions are in line.

Simon further suggests that: “There needs to be a common standard for recruitment worldwide, so that workers are recruited ethically, treated fairly and have a good experience. All seasonal workers should be paid the national living wage, we even find some farmers offering to pay more than this. And under no circumstances should a candidate ever have to pay any fees during the recruitment process.

“Around 75% of our workers say they’ll come back to work with us, or recommend us to a friend. If they’re happy with the experience then this will encourage them to return to the UK to work.”

The message is clear – if workers are offered fair working practises, a safe environment in which to work, and an overall positive experience, then they’re more likely to want to return. And for seasonal workers who are needed to return year after year after year, this is the holy grail.

Challenges of life in the UK

Recruiters have a responsibility to paint a fair picture of what life in the UK is really like. Agriculture seasonal roles involve long hours, early starts and sometimes bad weather conditions making the job tougher still.

The pandemic has complicated life in the UK further – with the devolved nations following different Covid-19 restrictions and isolation rules to England. Recruiters must be on top of these quickly shifting rules, and communicate them fully to their overseas candidates – and they must also ensure that overseas workers are only going to farms with robust health and safety measures to mitigate the risks associated with Covid-19.

There are other, hidden challenges for newcomers to the UK too. Setting up a bank account is a crucial part of starting a new life in the UK, in order to get paid by an employer. Yet many high street bank accounts require three months worth of utility bills in order to open an account, but a new arrival to the country will not have this level of documentation available to them. They may not have even secured accommodation yet – or are unable to pay for accommodation, or set up a tenancy agreement without a bank account first. This cycle can leave workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Recruiters and agencies working with overseas workers have a duty of care to their candidates, and must ensure that support packages take these experiences into consideration. Education and guidance on how to open a bank account, secure somewhere to live, and what to do if they become ill or test positive for Covid are essential parts of the recruiter/candidate relationship – and all the more important if we want to ensure that the UK is a viable choice for an international workforce.

The challenges listed above also can impact the recruiters themselves – a candidate unable to sign a rental agreement or open a bank account is one that cannot start work, leaving the client short of staff and the recruiter unable to finalise a new hire. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure overseas workers make a seamless transition to life in the UK.