On 1 December 2020, the UK will launch a new Points Based Immigration System and from 1 January 2021 any EU national who wants to come to the UK will need to qualify for a visa under the new system. Given the number of EU nationals employed in agricultural jobs, businesses will need to consider the effect of the new rules on future recruitment.

How does the new system deal with agricultural jobs?

The new rules are replacing the existing Tier 2 visa (which is commonly known as a work permit). The replacement system will be known as the “Skilled Worker” visa, and the Home Office define a skilled job as one that requires an A Level or Higher exam level of skill. This unfortunately means that a large number of agricultural jobs are excluded from the Skilled Worker category.

Even where a role is considered to be sufficiently skilled by the Home Office, a business will need a Sponsor Licence to support the application and in most cases will need to pay a salary of at least £25,600 per year, which is likely to be out of reach in many cases.

There is some good news, the new system will formalise the previous pilot scheme for temporary agricultural workers called a "seasonal worker visa" - meaning both EU and non EU nationals can be hired. The new system will cover jobs involving:

  • Vegetables grown in glasshouse systems;
  • Field vegetables;
  • Soft fruit;
  • Orchard fruit;
  • Vines and Bines; and
  • Mushrooms.

How can a business benefit from the new rules?

Before a business can benefit from the seasonal worker visa, it will need to be granted a Tier 5 Licence by the Home Office. This requires the business to pay a fee of £536 for a four year Licence and then further fees each time it supports a visa application for an individual.

In addition to the application costs, a business has to satisfy the Home Office that it has the necessary systems in place to meet the “sponsor compliance duties”. The main duties include checking an individual’s Right to Work, which should be done for all staff even if they are only employed on a casual or seasonal basis, keeping copies of records relating to payments, monitoring attendance at work and the individual’s contact details.

These duties can be daunting for a first time sponsor, but in my experience it is not difficult to implement a system of checks and records that meet the Home Office requirements, as many businesses already hold this information without any formal processes being in place. Taking time to consider how existing systems can be formalised or strengthened can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful application, as well as saving the business owner a great deal of paperwork in future.

How does the visa work?

Individuals who are granted seasonal worker visas, are allowed to spend up to 6 months in the UK in any 12 month period. It is important to note that this 12 month period is not the same as a calendar year. This means that a worker who comes in May 2021 for the strawberry picking season and then leaves in early October 2021, will not be able to return to the UK the following year, so businesses will not be able to hire the same staff year after year.

What can businesses do now?

A business that anticipates needing to recruit from outside the UK should make an application for a Sponsor Licence now. This will give them sufficient time to make an application, receive a decision and get ready to use the Licence before it is required.

It is also worth businesses speaking to existing and previous workers who are still in the UK. EU nationals who are resident in the UK before the end of December 2020 can register with the Home Office for a different type of status which makes them exempt from the new rules. These applications are free of charge and can help ensure that there are experienced workers available early next year.