What do flaming foreigners do for us? When it comes to food and drink, “a lot” is the answer. Apart from supporting exports worth £5.31 billion, foreign workers here play a big role.
The past week has been a stark illustration of that. A swoop on foreign takeaway shops in Oban by immigration officers uncovered 17 staff without the right to work in the UK. “A lot of tourists go for an Indian or a Chinese because they offer people a cheap meal,” one local told The Scotsman. There are fears some ethnic businesses in the town will close.
Similar fears emerged this week about the future of food prices, as an employment scheme for foreign fruit-pickers prepares to wind up.
Every year, the seasonal agriculture workers scheme permits 22,000 Romanians and Bulgarians to enter the UK for six months. Around 3,000 end up in Scotland, where many work as fruit-pickers.
The scheme will close at the end of this year, when Romania and Bulgaria gain free access to the European labour markets. Farmers fear that unless they can recruit alternative workers from countries such as Ukraine, the price of food here will have to rise to reflect higher wages.
But with every problem comes an opportunity. As our food and drink sector grows, so does its importance to the economy. By 2017, it could be worth as much as oil and gas yet jobs in the sector are still often seen as low status. That is wrong. We happen to be very good at food and drink in Scotland and, as such, we should be proud of the industry and the work it offers.
In a nation with nearly 200,000 people unemployed, why are we looking to the furthest fringes of Europe for workers to help get our produce from the fields to the markets? If the work is good enough for migrant workers, surely its good enough for us?
If Scotland is ever truly to become a land of food and drink, one of the key changes needs to be a better status for the work involved. It may be low wage but that doesn’t make it menial.
I’ve stayed in hotels in Scotland and hardly encountered a Scot. You cannot blame EU workers for taking those jobs. Look at it from their point of view. They get to stay in beautiful places with accommodation provided and practise their language skills while they earn.
But how authentic a Scottish experience does it give visitors if most of the staff they encounter are Australian?
There will always be space for foreign workers in our food, drink and hospitality sector. If nothing else, sometimes they can be harder working and more pleasant than us locals.
But we can’t rely on them and just keep looking further afield to fulfil demand. The long term lies here, with us.