Scottish crops at risk without migrant labour, says NFUS

While the fate of migrant labour has been centre stage in Brexit discussions, a more urgent need to ensure there will be a sufficient workforce to help gather in next year's fruit and vegetable crops has been raised.

NFU Scotland's James Porter said: 'We must be able to continue to source seasonal workers.' Picture: Craig Stephen
NFU Scotland's James Porter said: 'We must be able to continue to source seasonal workers.' Picture: Craig Stephen

And a call was also made for a UK-wide seasonal agricultural workers scheme that would provide permits for 20,000 migrant workers from outside the EU to supplement the already dwindling soft-fruit labour force, which will be required to pick the 2018 crop.

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With Scotland’s soft fruit industry seeing a 10-20 per cent shortage of seasonal workers coming from the EU this year, NFU Scotland’s horticulture committee chairman and soft fruit farmer James Porter said that fewer workers were being attracted from EU member states due to the UK’s poorer exchange rates and growing affluence in other parts of the Continent.

Stating that the situation was likely to get worse ”year on year”, he said that the industry would be taking the issue up with the Home Office in an attempt to secure short-term measures to keep the wheels of the fruit and veg sectors turning.

Speaking following discussions with the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) – the body charged with looking at the post-Brexit needs of UK industry – Porter admitted that this fell out with the body’s remit but said that it emphasised the urgency of the situation.

“For a major soft fruit area like Angus, the importance of seasonal workers cannot be underestimated,” he said after the meeting.

“There are only 1,400 long-term unemployed in Angus, yet Angus Soft Fruits – the group that I supply with soft fruit – needs a seasonal workforce of 4,000 to pick crops.”

Adding that there would hardly be a punnet of Scottish strawberries or a head of broccoli on supermarket shelves which hadn’t been picked by non-UK workers, he said there had to be a mechanism to allow access to workers in place by next year – and to ensure workers would still be able to come to Scotland post-Brexit, in spring 2019.

“Long-term, post-Brexit, we must be able to continue to source seasonal workers, as we currently do, with the bare minimum of restriction,” said Porter. He added that while the mechanism to bring this about might still be up for discussion, it had to be simple, saying there could be merit in revisiting the old Worker Registration Scheme.

Stating that the majority of these workers returned home at the end of the season he said that seasonal workers – who were generally fit, young and healthy and made little calls on the health services – contributed about £160 million in national insurance payments to the exchequer.