Stephen Jardine: No home-grown replacements for migrant labour

The soft fruit trade is worth �93m each year to the Scottish economy but it relies heavily on migrants to pick the berries.

The soft fruit trade is worth �93m each year to the Scottish economy but it relies heavily on migrants to pick the berries.

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With two years of negotiations ahead leading up to Brexit, there is so much to sort out. From trade tarrifs to free movement for citizens, it’s hard to know where the politicians should begin. Scottish strawberry picking is unlikely to be high on the list of causes for concern during talks in Brussels but it symbolises a much wider problem.

With two years of negotiations ahead leading up to Brexit, there is so much to sort out. From trade tarrifs to free movement for citizens, it’s hard to know where the politicians should begin. Scottish strawberry picking is unlikely to be high on the list of causes for concern during talks in Brussels but it symbolises a much wider problem.

When it comes to food, drink and hospitality, we’ve become reliant on EU migrant workers. The human resources director of sandwich chain Pret a Manger recently revealed that of every 50 applicants for jobs with the company, only one is British. If that sounds far fetched, think about your recent experiences in any of the major out of home food chains. You are more likely to be served by someone from Bratislava or Barcelona than someone from Burntisland.

According to the British Hospitality Association, it will take up to 10 years for the major chains to replace their EU workers. The organisation warns some businesses will go bust unless agreement is reached to allow EU migrants to continue to work in British hospitality post Brexit. Scottish farmers will see that as a sensible proposal.

We have around 21,000 hectares of vegetables and soft fruit growing in Scotland, including crops grown under cover. Soft fuit production alone is worth an estimated £93 million a year to the Scottish economy with strawberries top of the heap. However the fragile nature of the fruit means all Scottish strawberries are hand picked and that requires migrant labour.

For decades eastern European workers have come here to pick soft fruit, often living in caravans on site and returning year after year. East Seaton farm near Arbroath employs nearly 400 temporary workers in a season stretching from April to October, over half of them are returning staff. Local councillor Bob Spink says their importance to the area cannot be underestimated.

“I believe there are about 5000 eastern Europeans working in Angus, all making a valuable contribution to the economy though their taxes and spend in local shops, and through the success of the farms who employ them, who supply most of the UK’s major multiple retailers,” he said. Even with notice and planning, it’s hard to see how the gap left by EU farm workers could be easily filled.

If temporary dispensation for some workers would help in the short term, the British Hospitality Association believes Brexit will require more fundamental change.

Giving evidence on recruitment policy to a House of Lords select committee, Pret a Manger’s head of HR said attracting British staff was tough. “We are not always seen as a desirable place to work,” said Andrea Wareham. Given the free food, paid breaks and pleasant working environment, that might seem surprising but hospitality often has a reputation for low pay, hard work and anti-social hours.

The British Hospitality Association believes the solution is more promotion within schools of non-academic careers as a good option for pupils at secondary school. The service sector in this country is undervalued as a career option and Brexit may force the industry to address that. For decades, the armed forces have successfully recruited on the basis of a smart approach to the job on offer. Rather than focussing on the kill or be killed aspect, the army, navy and airforce all emphasise the skills, camaraderie and travel opportunities a career in the armed forces can afford.

An industry-wide advertising campaign backed in schools may be what is needed to tackle the prejudices we have when it comes to careers in hospitality and the food and drink sector. Post Brexit, the answer to the skills gap is going to be found here at home and right now is when we need to start looking.

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