What is the Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme and how can this address the current shortages of workers in the UK?

After 2013, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was closed as the government thought that the lower-skilled labour in the horticultural sector could be replaced by migrant workers through freedom of movement from the A8 countries. Six years and one Brexit referendum later, the UK government has announced the Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in 2019, which allows migrants to come to the UK to work in edible horticultural jobs temporarily. This article will give a brief overview of the current Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme and how this has addressed the shortages of workers in the horticultural sector in the UK.

Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme

The Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme was first announced on 6 March 2019. This scheme allows workers to come to the UK to work on farms for up to six months within one calendar year. This scheme allows the pilot operators to recruit temporary migrant workers for specific roles in the horticulture sector. As a response to the success of the initial pilot for 2019 and 2020 and the growing demand of seasonal migrant workers in the edible horticultural and agricultural sector, the UK government announced that 30,000 seasonal worker visa will be made available in 2021, three times the amount compared to 2020. Following the end of EU Freedom of Movement, this scheme has also become available to EEA citizens.

Under the scheme, the Pilot Operator may not source labour for themselves, but only as a third-party provider, whereas in the pre-2013 Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme growers were licensed to recruit their own labour.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has identified that approximately 50,000 workers are employed seasonally on UK farms. The government also voiced their concern that the sector should show ‘greater urgency in modernising its business practices through automation for labour substitution and the recruitment of domestic UK workers’.

However, most of the employers in these sectors have become reliant on temporary migrant workers over the years, and the response to Pick for Britain campaign has shown that the current supply of domestic UK workers is limited as an estate of only 5-11% of Britons have taken up the 70,000 harvesting roles in 2020. If anything, it has highlighted the demand for seasonal migrant workers. In the short term, the demand for migrant workers in the seasonal sectors such as edible horticultural still remains.

Seasonal Worker Visa Requirements

Seasonal Worker Visas applicants and sponsors are subject to validity, eligibility, financial and other requirements as set out by the Home Office in the Immigration Rules.

First, the applicant needs to meet requirements for entry clearance such as fees, biometrics, valid passport, as well as receiving a Certificate of Sponsorship (referred to as “CoS” hereinafter) from a sponsor (the Pilot Operator employer). The applicant needs to be aged over 18 and applications can be made as early as three months before the start date of the role.

Second, the CoS must have been issued by a sponsor which has an endorsement from Defra in relation to the seasonal worker route; is licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority; and is listed as A-rated on the Home Office’s published register of licensed sponsors; and is still approved as a sponsor on the date on which the application is decided.

The job offer must not have been withdrawn since the CoS has been issued. The CoS must also not have been used in a previous application that was already decided, and must state the role is in the edible horticultural sector, which means those growing protected vegetables, field vegetables, soft fruit, top fruit, vines and bines, and mushrooms.

Third, on application a financial requirement has to be met by either the applicant or the sponsor. The applicant must show that they have held £1,270 for a 28-day period and as specified in Appendix Finance. Alternatively, the sponsor can certify that they will maintain and accommodate the applicant up to the end of the first month of employment up to at least the amount of £1,270.

Once the application has been approved, the applicant will be granted permission to work in the UK for either the period of the role on the CoS plus 14 days before and after, or a maximum of a 6 months stay in any 12-month period, whichever is shorter. The applicant will also have no access to public funds and the work is only permitted in the role the applicant is being sponsored for. The applicant is, however, permitted to study, subject to the ATAS condition.

Uptake of the Seasonal Worker Visa Pilot Scheme

According to the Managed Migration Datasets published by the Home Office, Since the introduction of the Pilot, the number of applications has increased year on year. The total number of applications made for this visa in the year of 2019 was 2,494. In 2020, despite the economic downturn and restrictions resulted from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the number of applications made in Q2 2020 alone was more than the whole year of 2019, at 3,229. Following the extension of the pilot and the increasing of the cap to 30,000 at the end of December 2020, this combination has resulted in a huge increase in the number of applications of this visa. In Q1 2021, the number of applications were 4,035 and in Q2 2021 alone the figure skyrocketed to 12,375.

When looking at the countries of origin of the applications, Ukraine, in particular, has been the most responsive country to this scheme, with 20,504 applications having been made since the pilot has opened to Ukrainian nationals. In Q2 2021, 8760 applications were made. Following Ukraine, the countries with more than 1,000 applications are Russia, Georgia and Moldova, with 1,427, 1,239 and 1,064 applications having been made respectively since the launch of the scheme for these countries. In total, as of Q2 2021, nationals of 45 countries have submitted applications to the Pilot.

Most applications under this visa category were approved.  From the launch of the pilot scheme in Q1 2019, 26,182 visa applications have been made and 25,975 visas have been issued under this scheme by the end of Q2 2021.

The above data have shown the response to this pilot has been positive, and that the scheme has provided temporary relief of seasonal labour shortages in the UK edible horticultural sector. As the current extension of the pilot is still ongoing, we await the figures for Q3 and Q4 2021 to understand the full extent of the uptake and response of the current extended pilot, particularly from EEA citizens.


One of the objectives of the Extended Pilot is to determine whether the Pilot might provide a longer-term model for responding to seasonal labour shortages in this sector. From the dataset published by the Home Office in relation to this Pilot, it is evident that migrants are responding to this visa route as the number of applications have increased almost eightfold, when comparing first halves of 2019 and 2021.The Pilot has temporarily alleviated shortages in the horticulture sector, and has helped to gather information for the Home Office, Defra, and employers in the horticulture sector, to get a possible approach for seasonal labour in the future. The Scheme has also been used to bring poultry workers and HGV fuel tanker drivers to address the current shortages.

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