Horticutlure Blog - 05/02/2018

Scotland’s booming soft fruit and veg sector is the most youthful, innovative and capital-intensive sector in Scottish farming writes NFU Scotland’s Horticulture Committee Chairman James Porter, who grows soft fruit as part of a mixed farming enterprise at East Scryne, Carnoustie.

The amount of tasty fruit and healthy veg being grown on Scottish farms has grown in value to almost £300 million last year – about 10 percent of total Scottish farm production and on a par with industry stalwarts like sheep and dairy.

But access to workers remains our biggest priority as we 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.

It is estimated that there are between 5,000 and 15,000 seasonal workers employed within the Scottish agricultural sector at any one time.

In 2017, there was a shortage of between 10 and 20 percent of seasonal workers coming to Scotland from both inside and out with the EU - partly because of exchange rates, but also because of increasing affluence in other parts of the EU making Scotland a less attractive place for EU nationals. However, there are still many non-EU nationals who want to come and work in Scotland but who are restricted from doing so.  The availability of more work permits for non-EU nationals would be a solution to the labour crisis facing the industry.

Although difficult to quantify, anecdotal evidence indicates that hundreds of tons of Scottish produce went unpicked last year due to labour issues and this will get worse year on year without the UK Government taking steps.  

To establish the facts, the Union is currently surveying those Scottish growers reliant on seasonal workers and what is already clear is that action is needed now, ahead of crops being harvested this summer and autumn.

For many years, the UK operated a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) which granted permits for workers, mainly students, from outside the EU to come to here for a few months to assist with harvest before returning home.

For Scotland’s soft fruit and veg growers, it is absolutely essential that we have a new Seasonal Workers Scheme in place for 2018 if all our crops are to make it onto shop shelves, rather than having some rotting in the fields.

These are points I have made in person to the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee and DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove but with no success to date.

For a major soft fruit area like Angus, the importance of seasonal workers cannot be underestimated.  There are only 1400 long term unemployed in Angus, yet Angus Soft Fruits – the group that I supply with soft fruit – needs a seasonal workforce of 4000 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.

Immigration is a political hot potato but it is important to note that these seasonal workers would have next to no impact on the UK’s net immigration figures as, seasonal workers would all return home.  

If the political climate in England makes it difficult to introduce a seasonal workers scheme there, I am certain a pilot would be well received in Scotland.

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 £2000 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.

Sadly, a recent speech by Michael Gove did not suggest that he, or the UK Government has grasped the urgency of the situation despite several of their own MPs, the whole farming industry and a Parliamentary committee warning him that there is going to be a shortage of seasonal workers this year.

In response to Mr Gove’s comments that industries that rely on importing ‘cheap labour’ run the risk of failing to invest in the innovation required to become genuinely more productive, I point out that there is no such thing as ‘cheap’ labour.  

Our business’ average wage bill is well over the minimum wage and with the best of our pickers capable of earning between £10 and £12 per hour.  All workers are employed under the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board rules and paid exactly the same whether they are UK citizens or not.

Wages are, by a country mile, the largest cost to this industry.  Trust me, if we could pick fruit and veg with a robot we would be doing it already, but the reality is that commercially, that technology is at least a decade away.

There will certainly be developments in the future but for the time being we are entirely reliant on manual harvesting and, in the absence of a local workforce, we must look elsewhere if we are to ensure the success story that is Scottish soft fruit and veg continues.

Author: James Porter

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