One of Northern Ireland's biggest unions has warned agricultural employers they must pay their workers more if they want to end widespread farm labour shortages.

In its response to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs' (DAERA's) consultation on plans to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) Unite said the solution to the agricultural work was "simple".

"Agricultural field and farm work are tough and exhausting - workers need to be properly rewarded for their labour," Unite regional officer Sean McKeever said.

Farm labour shortage

Farm labour shortages have been an issue for several years now but are thought to have become worse since Brexit has restricted the influx of seasonal workers.

Workforce shortages are well documented in other parts of the UK - particularly England and Scotland.

The issue is less pronounced in Northern Ireland where the horticultural industry is smaller. However, horticulture and agri-food processing staff were among the jobs recommended by the Northern Ireland Executive on the UK's Shortage Occupation List just last year.

McKeever said he challenged agricultural and horticultural employers to up staff pay to overcome widespread labour shortages.

“Agricultural field and farmworkers perform a vital role in our economy. It is hard and exhausting work – with very long hours during the harvest period when every hour of light is important.

Many of those who work on our fields and farms are migrant workers reliant on seasonal and casual work to get by.

“With Brexit, the free availability of such workers to employers in Northern Ireland has all but dried up. The result is reports of widespread labour shortages across the agri-food sector – this is affecting the harvest of fruit and vegetables."

However, it comes just weeks after Simon Naylor, co-owner of Naylor Farms in Lincolnshire, the UK’s largest grower of cabbages, told the Express he had been forced to raise wages to nearly £20 an hour - a situation he described as "unsustainable".

"To keep people we have raised wages by 60% to nearly £20/hour for packhouse staff and from this week we are having to pay them to turn up at £20/day for a weekday and £30 for weekends," he said.

'A race to the bottom'

However, Unite warned abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board would result in a "race to the bottom" in agri-food.

"The AWB is one of the only protections existing for field and farmworkers providing a floor on pay, overtime and working conditions in the sector," McKeever said.

In our detailed submission to DAERA against its abolition, Unite highlighted that the move will only give the 'green light' to a wider onslaught on workers, especially younger workers in particular.

“The AWB provides substantially higher pay for younger farmworkers than minimum wage provisions; it also encourages upskilling through guaranteeing pay increments.

"In so doing, it plays a critical role in encouraging new entrants and upskilling in a sector desperate for younger workers. This is particularly important at a time of growing labour shortages post-Brexit.

“The reality is that if agri-food employers want to end labour shortages and entice more people to work for them on fields and farms, the solution is simple - they need to pay their employees more,” McKeever concluded.