Scots fruit, veg ‘at risk without migrant labour’

Scotland’s booming fruit, vegetable and horticultural industry is already suffering from a shortage of migrant labour amid ongoing Brexit uncertainty, NFU Scotland has warned.

NFU Scotland said that already, there has been a shortage of between 10% and 20% of seasonal workers coming from the EU.

Major fruit-growing areas like Angus are hardest hit.

The industry is calling for a UK Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to be in place for 2018 with work permits for up to 20,000 workers from out with the EU.

NFU Scotland’s horticulture committee chairman James Porter, who grows soft fruit as part of a mixed farming enterprise at East Scryne, Carnoustie, said: “Access to workers remains a key priority, particularly for some very successful parts of our industry that are overwhelmingly dependent on non-UK harvest labour.

“There will hardly be a punnet of Scottish strawberries or a head of broccoli that isn’t picked by non-UK workers.

“For our soft fruit and vegetable sectors, there must be mechanisms put in place to allow access to those workers next year and ensure workers will be able to come to Scotland post-Brexit, in spring 2019.

“There are several strands to migrant labour, all of which are vital to the ongoing success of these sectors.

“Long-term, post-Brexit, we must be able to continue to source seasonal workers, as we currently do, with the bare minimum of restriction.

“While the mechanism is up for discussion, it must be simple and there may be merit in revisiting the Worker Registration Scheme which operated 2004 as a start point.

“This year, there has been a shortage of between 10 and 20 percent of seasonal workers coming from the EU — partly because of exchange rates, but also because of increasing affluence in other parts of the EU.

“This will get worse year on year.

“To tackle that, it is essential that we have a UK Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in place for 2018 with work permits for up to 20,000 workers from out with the EU.

“It was made clear that short term issues are out with the Migration Advisory Committee remit so this is something we will be looking to raise directly with the Home office.

“For a major soft fruit area like Angus, the importance of seasonal workers cannot be underestimated.

“There are only 1,400 long term unemployed in Angus, yet Angus Soft Fruits – the group that I supply with soft fruit – needs a seasonal workforce of 4,000 to pick crops.

“With the massive growth that we have seen in our soft fruit and veg sectors in Scotland, it is simply impossible for that labour to be sourced locally.

“From these seasonal workers, we also need to continue to be able to employ around five percent on a permanent basis, as managerial staff because of their experience in the work and their ability to communicate with the seasonal workforce.

“Other sectors of agriculture and our food and drink sector also require permanent employees.

“Any new measures put in place for employing non-UK labour must deliver on this.

“It is important to note Scottish agriculture’s total labour needs would have next to no impact on the UK’s net immigration figures as, apart from the small number of permanent workers, seasonal workers would all return home.

“And there would be fiscal benefits to the UK treasury in continuing to allow seasonal staff.

“Between a seasonal worker and their employer, National Insurance contributions amount to around £2,000 over six months.

“The NI contributions currently generated by seasonal workers across the UK amounts to £160 million for a temporary workforce that is generally young, fit and healthy.”

The pre-Brexit and post-Brexit employment needs of Scotland’s horticultural sector were outlined at a meeting of the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee in Edinburgh this week.

Porter met Professor Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee at a roundtable meeting with stakeholders.

Porter also took part in a stakeholder meeting with UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove in Aberdeen.

The Migration Advisory Committee is at an early stage of its current commission, which broadly focuses on the impact of Brexit on the UK Labour Market, and how the UK’s immigration system can be best aligned to a modern industrial strategy.