Vets and Farming

08 Oct 2019

UK Food Standards and Animal Welfare Jeopardised by Post-Brexit Immigration Rules?

This article has been written by Conor Kavanagh who is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers.

The British exit from the European Union will drastically change the UK’s relationship with the continent. Most of all, it will change the makeup of the British workforce as the end of Free Movement signifies the start of costly visa applications and paperwork for all EU entrants past 2021.

Farmers and their sister industry, veterinarians, are set to be hit the hardest by the new changes since both are overwhelmingly fueled by EU labour which, in turn, jeopardises the UK’s high standards in animal welfare and food hygiene. It is estimated as high as 75% of essential abattoir workers are recruited from overseas while 90% of veterinarians are EU nationals, which can rise to 100% in certain areas of the country for Official Veterinarians (OVs) such as Wales.

The first new hurdle for the industry emerges out of new visa requirements: EU vets and farm workers will need to apply for a Tier 2 Work Visa which requires Sponsorship from a UK employer and a minimum salary of £30,000 a year. While the Government believes £30,000 constitutes as the bar for a ‘skilled’ occupation – with latest Home Secretary, Priti Patel hoping to increase the threshold even further to £36,700 – the income requirement presents significant barriers for graduate vets, researchers, scientists, fruit pickers, abattoir workers and farm staff that fall short.

However, further recruitment difficulties may be avoided as the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) advocated veterinary roles be added to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – a resource that lists occupations the UK is in short supply of workers for. The benefit of being on the SOL for migrant vets is that they can enjoy a visa discount, have an exemption from the £30,000 Tier 2 rule and are prioritised a place over other Tier 2 applicants. They also don’t need to earn £35,000 to remain in the country after five years.

Although definitely a step in the right direction, critics speculate whether or not the move will be enough to overcome the workforce shortages that have only grown – and continue to grow – since the EU referendum. Besides, essential farming roles are crucially left behind and are not put forth to be featured on the SOL, despite the growing demand for staff and concerns rising across the sector. According to a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report, the farming industry is at a great risk of losing substantial chunks of its workforce. On some farms, up to 40 percent of staff originate from the EU which can rise to as high as 58 percent on poultry farms during seasonal peaks such as turkey farmers for Christmas. Yet the only route on offer after Brexit is a restrictive 12-Month Temporary Work Visa in which migrants are tied to one employer, can’t extend or switch their visa, cannot bring children or dependents with them and they must leave the country and not return for another year once their placement has finished. This move has prompted multiple anti-slavery charities to warn such schemes could lead to labour exploitation and increased human trafficking. The route is also unsustainable for future of UK farming, especially since the scheme ends in 2025 entirely and that essential slaughterhouse work does not generally attract interest from British workers.

Combined with the shortage of labour to oversee Britain’s food standards, Brexit may leave Britain at the mercy of a trade deal from Donald Trump which would force Britain to compromise its high standards of animal welfare and food hygiene. Currently, European Law grants Britain’s markets sufficient protection from unethically sourced foreign animal produce while simultaneously regulating home-grown meat. Not only is the UK tasked with the challenge of transitioning thousands of EU protections into the British legal system – including 80% of animal welfare laws – but a UK-US trade deal would result in relaxed welfare standards as UK supermarket shelves make way for US imported and unethically produced meat. The Americans push for opening up the British market could see British food standards irrevocably changed for the worse as poorer quality meat is imported, which British farmers can’t legally replicate. UK farmers may be inclined to advocate for relaxed standards and resist further reforms, just to stay competitive and viable in the market.

The looming threat of a UK-US trade deal is becoming very much a reality as the Government ramps up preparations for a No Deal Brexit this October. The erosion of food standards and the emergence of cheaper American meat on the market may cause much of the British farming industry to suffer or go out of business while the National Farmers’ Union warn a No Deal could result in the mass culling of livestock.

While some steps are being taken to soften the blow of Brexit, it is clear there is still plenty to do to safeguard animals and the workers who care for them before the UK abandons the bloc. It’s estimated there could be a dramatic incline – of around 225% - of Official Veterinarians (OVs) to sign off imports and exports at the border in the event of a No Deal. Only time will tell how the SOL will fare at filling the current shortages of vets and then some. As for farming, the future looks even bleaker. The Government’s agricultural scheme to recruit 2,500 workers per every six months is a drop in the ocean compared to the volume of EU workers that work on British farms every year.

But with little alternative visa route, lacking homegrown interest, rising uncertainty among EU citizens remaining in the UK coupled with the likelihood of a No Deal Brexit increasing, how will the UK farming sector and the welfare of animals be protected after Brexit?