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Solving labour crisis crucial to fortunes of Scottish horticulture

Labour is a major talking point for business leaders now and is an essential resource for a successful agricultural industry in Scotland said Iain Brown, chair of NFU Scotland’s Horticulture Working Group in his address to the NFU Scotland conference last week.

He said: We do not have the luxury position of 10 Downing Street, who can put a new team in place as quick as the others leave. The labour market in our sector is challenging with unemployment levels nationally at a 20 year low at 4.1%.

The headlines in one national newspaper this week read “Workers get taste for four-day week,” the article went onto say – “Shifting employees to a maximum of four working days a week for full-time pay” the latest offering firms are adopting to retain employees in an increasing tight jobs market. This option within the job market has doubled in 5 years although at a relatively low level but a worrying trend for an industry like ours which in some sectors requires 24 hours a day attention 7 days a week.

Within our own industry in Scotland:
•    Full time staff employed in 2010 was 14,200 and ten years later stood at 12,900
•    Part time staff in the same period rose from 6,600 to 7,600
•    Seasonal staff in 2010 was 5,900; in 2020 it was 8,200.  This clearly demonstrates the demand for seasonal workers to harvest fruit and vegetables in Scotland

It is also important to point out that those seasonal jobs create full time positions within those farming businesses and the supply chain

We can see from Scottish Government statistics how important horticulture is to the nation’s economy.
•    Horticulture occupies 1% of the Scotland’s land mass but generates 10% Scottish agricultural output
•    Soft fruit in 2010 was grown on 2000ha and in 2020 this had grown to 2,200ha
•    The output value of Scottish soft fruit grew by £68m to £128m (an increase of 112%) over the decade up to 2015 and the value of vegetables in the same period grew from £48m to £116m.

Seasonal staff is not unique to Scotland. In Sweden, 5 000 migrant workers, mainly from Thailand, enter the country every year on a special work permit for berry pickers and planters – a permit that applies only to seasonal workers.

Germany receives around 300,000 workers a year for agricultural, horticultural and forestry work, many of them from Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Romania. Clearly the Germans agricultural sector is dependent on a large temporary workforce.

Before Brexit, the Scottish horticultural industry had grown significantly since 2013 with the free movement of labour. Previously, The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme has provided an immigration route for employers to satisfy labour demands in the agricultural sector and has been used since 1945 but the Home Office still do not understand that a simple low-cost scheme can help the industry.  

Data demonstrates there has been demand for our production and, going forward, we can see Government policies focusing on our produce.

A white paper issued by the UK government last week, is asking GPs to trial prescribing fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a “Community Eat Well” programme.  If they do mean fresh what could be fresher than home produced?

The Scottish government are also running the farm to fork initiative – again showing demand for local produce.  

However, unless there is an improvement in the availability of seasonal labour these opportunities will be lost to imports.

The justification and evidence for a pragmatic migration policy to help deliver home grown produce remains strong.

NFU Scotland has lobbied hard at Westminster and at the Scottish office to change the migration policy to the benefit of our members with the Seasonal Workers Scheme (SWS) extended this year to ornamental and potato growers.

We have also been lobbying on behalf of dairy, pig and poultry members recognising the high skill requirements of dairy managers and the ongoing labour shortage on pig and poultry farms.

Shortage of workers is not just a problem on the farm there are issues throughout the supply chain from distribution, slaughterhouses, processors, and packers. NFU Scotland along with the Food and Drink Federation have put forward the solution of a temporary 12-month visa to expand recruitment to overseas workers and continue to put pressure on the Migration Advisory Committee, highlighting the needs of the food and drink sector.

In December and, because of Government inaction, it was a huge disappointment that the SWS was capped at 30,000 visas for the UK this season, the same figure as in 2021, when the industry had asked for 55,000.  However, there is an opportunity to increase to 40,000 this year subject to demand. To help the argument to increase the number of visas within the UK your union surveyed members to establish members labour requirements for the coming season.

The results show that Scottish farms expect 50% of the total EU settled status workers used in 2021 returning this season and the short fall in the number being taken up with the SWS. Member’s expectations are to increase the numbers of SWS in 2022 by 160%.

That is going to be challenging when we know all the visas in 2021 were used.

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