The Seasonal Workers Pilot has been expanded fourfold in a bid to boost the workforce on UK farms following concerns over a lack of migrant labour.
The scheme, first announced in 2018, gives farming businesses the opportunity to employ migrant workers for up to six months.
But industry groups criticised the pilot as ineffective as many businesses witnessed a sharp decline in the number of seasonal workers after the UK voted to leave the EU.
Nick Marston, Chairman of British Summer Fruits, said last year that farms reported staff shortages of 10-20 percent.
Seeking to remedy this, the government has announced today (19 February) that it will quadruple the number of workers farms can recruit from outside the EU this year to take up seasonal work.
The newly-appointed Defra Secretary George Eustice confirmed the expansion of the pilot to allow farmers to hire up to 10,000 workers in 2020 – an increase from the previous 2,500 workers.
Soft fruit production in the UK has grown dramatically, increasing by 185% between 1998 and 2018.
The UK requires approximately 80,000 seasonal agricultural workers every year and the Office for National Statistics has stated that 99% of these workers come from countries within the EU.
The expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot will support farmers over this year’s summer harvest, while allowing government to test the pilot further.
Mr Eustice said farmers and growers have made a 'powerful case' for needing more workers during the coming busy months.
“Expanding our Seasonal Workers Pilot will help our farms with the labour they need for this summer’s harvest, while allowing us to test our future approach further,” he said.
The NFU said the expansion of the scheme will ease some of the pressure for the coming season, but growers remain 'very concerned' over the future.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “We are urging government to commit to delivering a full scheme for 2021, which will enable us to recruit the 70,000 seasonal workers needed on British fruit, veg and flower farms.
“It is ironic that the government on the one hand is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet on the other hand making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain.”
The Seasonal Workers Pilot is designed to test the effectiveness of the UK's immigration system at supporting growers during peak production periods, whilst maintaining robust immigration control.
It will allow farms to hire workers for a period of up to six months and will continue to run until the end of 2020.
The former Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) closed in 2013.