Labour shortages could force fruit production to move abroad as a result of the vote to leave the European Union, MSPs have been told.
Holyrood’s Economy Committee heard Scottish fruit producers could have to scale back or move overseas as a result of any inability to recruit from EU countries post-Brexit.
James Porter, from Angus Soft Fruits which accounts for 60% of Scottish soft fruit production, told the committee it employed around 4,000 seasonal workers from EU countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states.
He said the industry is completely reliant on seasonal labour with just 2-3% of staff employed locally, and while there is no problem in recruiting in Scotland in the short-term, colleagues south of the border are facing “serious problems” recruiting for next year and workers are “very worried” about the future.
Asked about the impact of not being able to recruit from the EU, he said: “You could either scale right back and try and match your production to the labour that was available or you could move it abroad, and there’s already a lot of talk down south about doing that because although at the moment the UK is pretty much self-sufficient in fruit from May to September and supermarkets prefer UK-produced fruit over bringing it in from abroad, if you can’t source the labour you have no choice.
“If we couldn’t source it here we would look at moving it abroad somewhere.”
Mr Porter told MSPs there are several reasons why the industry cannot source enough labour locally, including the seasonal nature of the work, the unsociable hours, and the fact workers often have to live on the farm.
He cited one occasion where the company had gone to the local job centre to recruit 20 workers to help with storm damage.
“Two weeks later we didn’t have 20,” he said. “To be fair to them it’s pretty tough work, it’s not for everyone, but we have tried and... if someone comes and asks for work locally I’ll certainly give them a go.”
MSPs also heard from Dr Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents around 97,000 workers in social care.
He said EU nationals make up an estimated 12.5% to 25% of the care home workforce in Scotland.
Dr Macaskill said: “We are already hearing on an anecdotal basis that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from Europe post the Brexit decision, and even though the technicalities and the niceties of the process of withdrawal have not been determined, individuals are already voting with their feet in Europe by presuming that a country which has voted in the UK terms not to remain in Europe does not want me as a nurse or me as a social carer. So the impact in general we are deeply concerned about.”
He added: “Lots is being done but even if we were to continue attracting the same number of people from Europe as we are at the moment able to do so, we are still going to be faced with a massive shortage.
“There is a particular challenge attracting nurses to work first of all in social care and secondly to work with our older citizens. That’s a wider societal issue which we need to explore.
“Regardless of Brexit, we need to do something to increase capacity in Scotland to support older citizens.”