Farmers ‘need jobless’ to prevent fruit picking waste

Berry pickers are in short supply.
Berry pickers are in short supply.
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A Perthshire farmer who was forced to throw away 60 tonnes of berries last summer wants to recruit the unemployed as seasonal pickers.

A Perthshire farmer who was forced to throw away 60 tonnes of berries last summer wants to recruit the unemployed as seasonal pickers.

Meg Marshall said people on benefits are reluctant to take on short-term jobs because of the red-tape wrangle when the positions come to an end.

She wants the UK government to relax the rules so that farmers do not have to waste good fruit as the height of the picking season approaches.

An overwhelming majority of seasonal fruit pickers are from overseas, but the scrapping in 2013 of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which allowed migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to come for six months, as well as Brexit, has left farmers facing a recruitment crisis.

Ms Marshall, from Blairgowrie, said out-of-work people would not apply for seasonal jobs because they were worried about losing government aid and being caught in a red tape backlog when they re-applied. She said change was urgently needed as the country’s soft fruit industry faced a fresh recruitment crisis.

The call has been echoed in Fife, where Crail grower Tim Stockwell said the risk of losing out on benefits was deterring people from taking on short-term work.

They spoke out amid concern for the UK government’s seasonal workers’ pilot – a scheme launched to help provide 2,500 workers across the UK, mainly to the agricultural sector.

Perthshire SNP MP Peter Wishart claims the project has been “set up to fail” after industry leaders said the sector needed somewhere in the region of between 15,000 and 40,000 workers to survive.

The Scottish affairs committee, which Mr Wishart chairs, heard last week that if they could not get the staff, about 58 per cent of businesses could be forced to downsize or change. Ms Marshall, co-owner of Peter Marshall & Co, said it was a “struggle” to get workers. “We have been out to Romania on a recruitment drive and managed to meet 70 people who are really keen to come over,” she said.

“We are busy making arrangements to bring them across, but we still need between 300 and 400.”

Figures show just one in 400 seasonal workers in the Scottish industry last year was British. Mr Wishart has written to the Home Office, calling for visa applications to be speeded up to secure overseas workers in time for harvest.