The company that owns the UK’s biggest cannabis production site for use in pharmaceuticals has called for changes to immigration policy following labour shortages after it was excluded from a visa scheme for farm workers.
Peter Watson, agriculture director of British Sugar — which grows cannabis for use in epilepsy medicines at Wissington in Norfolk — blamed the recruitment problems on the rules of the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme.
The labour problems come as investments in cannabis companies soar after several countries, including the UK, legalised the use of medicines using extracts from the plant.
British Sugar’s operation, which supplies the US company Jazz Pharmaceuticals with ingredients for licensed anti-epilepsy drugs, is one of many farming businesses shut out of the seasonal workers’ scheme because they are not growing food.
The scheme, still a pilot, has this year permitted UK farmers to bring in as many as 30,000 workers from abroad for up to six months for harvesting. It aims to replace some of the overseas workforce who previously arrived under EU free movement.
Watson said: “It is disappointing that we have had a year that has been very challenging due to the worker shortages at our glasshouses.
“Our seasonal colleagues live on site for the growing and harvesting periods and we have historically employed people from both the UK and countries across Europe,” he added. “The restrictions to the pilot this year have meant we have struggled to recruit people.”
He said British Sugar wanted the government to expand the scheme to non-edible crops next year. “We would like a long-term commitment from the government that the labour demand for pharmaceutical growing is treated in the same way as growing for food,” he said.
Audrey Elliott, an employment and immigration partner at Eversheds Sutherland, the law firm, said the exclusion was hitting companies growing plants for pharmaceuticals and those conducting research on new, more disease-resistant or higher-yield crops.
“The nature of this work, often requiring concentrated work over short time periods and living on site, is not attractive or maybe not possible for many people,” Elliott said.
British Sugar uses heat and carbon dioxide generated by sugar production at its Wissington factory to grow cannabis in an 18-hectare glasshouse there under an agreement with GW Pharmaceuticals, which was bought by Jazz Pharmaceuticals in May.
Jazz is the only group working in the UK at commercial scale to provide licensed drugs, the most highly regulated part of the growing market to supply legal cannabis-related products. The plants are bred to have high levels of the CBD compound, which can help to control some forms of epilepsy.
Jazz Pharmaceuticals acknowledged the problems, but said it had still been able to meet its obligations to supply medicines.
“While our growing partners have experienced some variation in seasonal worker availability this year, this has not impacted our production or output,” said Chris Tovey, chief operating officer for Jazz Pharmaceuticals in the UK.
MPs recommended in a report last week that licensing of medicinal cannabinoids should be moved from the Home Office to The Department of Health and Social Care to facilitate growth in the sector and prevent the UK “losing out on a [roughly] £1bn medicines industry”.
Until the UK’s exit from the EU single market and customs union on December 31, which ended the Brexit transition period, farms relied on EU free movement to bring in short-term workers.
Under the new immigration regime, which focuses on admitting skilled and higher-paid workers, agriculture is the sole sector with a scheme to bring in low-skilled workers. It aims to address the acute shortage of UK workers willing to undertake the demanding, often low-paid work.
Flower growers have previously said they were having to let blooms rot because of labour shortages.
The Home Office said the terms of the scheme would not change. “There are currently no plans to expand the scope of the Seasonal Workers’ Pilot beyond edible horticulture and employers should focus on training and investing in our domestic workforce rather than relying on labour from abroad,” it said.