MPs visit farm to highlight ‘crisis’ of berry picker shortage

Real wages for berry pickers are thought to be better in southern Europe.
Real wages for berry pickers are thought to be better in southern Europe.
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Theresa May is failing to grasp the impact of European labour shortages on Scotland’s berry farms, it was claimed yesterday.

The chairman of the Scottish affairs committee, Pete Wishart, called for UK government action to help farms, where tonnes of berries are being left to rot because of a lack of pickers.

The plea came as a cross-party group of four members of the Commons committee – Mr Wishart of the SNP, David Duguid of the Conservatives and Labour’s Ged Killen and Hugh Gaffney – visited West Jordanstone farm, near Alyth, Perthshire, which is suffering from the shortage.

They were met by farmer Rowan Marshall and Clare Slipper of the NFU Scotland who described the problems caused by the threat of Brexit and the end of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

The politicians believe a version of the scheme, which ended in 2013, must be reinstated to combat the labour shortages that will result from the ending of free movement of people.

Mr Wishart said: “Cross-party support for introducing this scheme as soon as possible after consulting with the sector for type of scheme required.

“We know parts of the government is reasonably onside, for example if you speak to Michael Gove. He has no issues with it at all. It seems to be blocked at the Home Office and No. 10 where they still have this immigration obsession. Anything that involves bringing people to this country is viewed as suspicously as possible. But we have to persuade them in the next few weeks.”

Ms Slipper said the farm had lost 60 tonnes of strawberries so far as a result of the pickers shortage – a figure that translated into “losing hundreds of thousands”.

Ms Slipper said: “The purpose of the visit was to illustrate just how damaging it is not to have a steady stream of labour. What we really need is a scheme that is able to attract international workers – not just from the EU, it needs to be much wider than that.”

The politicians were shown round the farm and did a little berry picking themselves.

Ms Slipper said there was little understanding of how skilled and arduous the work was and little appreciation of the training required.

“It is not as simple as busing in kids from Glasgow. High intensity training is required. You need the drive to get the volume of berries. Polytunnels have made the growing season much longer – from March until late autumn... You need a scheme to get people for nine or ten months of the year and you can’t fill those gaps with local labour. It has been tried, but it doesn’t work.”

Mr Wishart added that the exchange rate was also unhelpful to Scottish fruit farmers. “If you are in Bulgaria or Romania or Poland, the declining pound makes it a more lucrative and attractive option to head to southern Europe. Your real wage is going to be much more significant,” he said.