"Farm Workers" - new visa announced by the government
The government announced on 6 September 2018 the introduction of a new UK visa category: seasonal agricultural workers. The new visa is specifically aimed at fruit and vegetable farmers who wish to employ migrant workers. The UK has experienced a growth of 130% in production of soft fruit, however, farmers have seen a reduction in worker availability. This visa is targeted at reducing labour shortages, typically during peak harvesting seasons, but will be available year round. The National Farming Union (NFU) has described the announcement of this visa as a “majority victory”.
Current details of the visa scheme
A pilot scheme is due to come into action from spring 2019 and last for around two years, ending in December 2020. The full details of how the visa arrangements will work have not been published, however, we do know the visa is expected to last for up to 6 months and 2,500 visas will be issued each year to non-European Economic Area (EEA) citizens. In order to be eligible to apply under the pilot scheme, the migrant worker must be 18 years old on the date of his/her application and be from outside of the European Union.
There will be two scheme operators who will run the pilot visa scheme. Although not completely clear, it appears both the migrant worker and the farm itself will apply to the scheme operator who will manage the placement of the worker. The scheme operators have not yet been announced.
The pilot scheme will be monitored closely by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Home Office. Defra will review the results of the pilot and decide whether the visa has positively supported the long-terms needs of the farming industry.
Standard visa requirements
Again, there has been little detail published about what other requirements the migrants holding valid farm worker visas will be required to comply with. However, we can make some assumptions as to what may happen. Given that the visa is set to last for up to 6 months, farm worker migrants may not need to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge fee and receive an IHS reference number. This is in line with the current rules on visitor visas and other short-term visas. Similarly, as the visa is expected to last no longer than 6 months, migrants may not be required to undergo a tuberculosis test, even if they are from one of the Home Office listed countries. (The full list of these countries can be found at https://www.gov.uk/tb-test-visa but includes South Africa, China, Hong Kong, India and Russia.) These assumptions should all be clarified when the government releases further details of how the visa scheme will operate.
Extending, Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) and family members
These are areas again where we need to wait for further information from the government. In line with other similar short-term visas, those holding farm worker visas may not be eligible to extend their visa or switch into another visa category. There may also be a moratorium on applying for a further fresh farm worker visa once the migrant has returned home for a set period. In order to be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, a migrant must have been living and working in the UK for 5 years (amongst other requirements) in certain eligible categories. In some cases, they will need to accumulate 10 years’ lawful residence. As the farm work visa is set to last up to 6 months, it seems unlikely that a migrant will be able to meet this criterion, although it does depend on whether migrants will be permitted to switch out of this visa category into another which is valid for longer. For most short-term visas, migrants are not permitted to bring their family members to the UK with them on the same visa. Again, those on a farm worker visa may be subject to the same prohibition.
Although not expressly stated on the gov.uk website as a result of Brexit, it is a fairly safe assessment to say that the visa is a consequence of the UK’s impending exit from the EU. The pilot is set to start around the time the UK officially leaves the EU – 29 March 2019 – and the pilot will continue to run during the transition period. The UK’s most recent version of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) visa permitted workers from Romania and Bulgaria to work in the UK. This visa scheme closed at the end of 2013, at the same time as the working restrictions on citizens of those two countries were lifted. It is therefore possible the government will introduce a similar scheme for farm workers. Alternatively, they could open up Tier 3 of the Points Based system which was meant to be used for low-skilled workers but it never came into operation and has been closed since the Points Based system was introduced in 2008. There is no policy guidance available on this route, so it is unclear how it will work in practice. It may be a similar set up to the Tier 5 Government Authorised Exchange (GAE) route, where the worker is sponsored through an overarching body instead of directly by the employer.
Whether this is just the start of “Brexit visas” seems unlikely; the NRU has been producing evidence and lobbying the government for two years on the shortage of farm labour. However, this does present questions about how our current UK visa categories may be reorganised following the UK’s exit from the European Union. This new visa category may be like the old SAWS, but it could also be an opportunity for the government to open up the unused category in the Points Based System – Tier 3: Unskilled Workers. Although citizens of EU member countries are currently excluded from the new farm workers visa, once the Brexit transition period has ended on 31 December 2020 (the same time as the pilot is due to end) the government may consider the option of opening up this category to nationals of the treaty member states. As with all visa categories, it is yet to be seen whether EEA citizens who do not enter the UK by 31 December 2020 may be eligible to apply.
For now, this visa scheme has not yet opened, but those wishing to apply as a migrant worker for this visa or those wishing to engage a migrant holding this visa should keep an eye out for further updates from the government on this scheme.
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