As Scotland’s soft fruit season draws to a close and vegetable harvesting and packing gears up for the autumn, NFU Scotland (NFUS) has called on the UK Government to make decisions now that will allow the recruitment of non-UK staff in 2021.
The Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme introduced by Government recognised the specific need to bring in workers to undertake work in the fruit and vegetable sector.
NFUS strongly welcomed the pilot being scaled up in 2020, to allow 10,000 permits to be offered to workers from outside the EU to work in the UK this year. However, it adds that this will fall significantly short of requirements when the free movement of people from the EU comes to an end on the 1st January 2021.
NFUS and other UK farming unions say they have consistently provided evidence to Government which demonstrates that around 70,000 seasonal staff are required in the UK fruit, vegetable and ornamentals sector each year.
Of this number, approximately 10,000 workers are understood to undertake work on Scottish farms, undertaking essential horticultural work for between six and nine months. From NFUS’ surveying of its horticulture members, every single respondent indicated that their businesses depended on non-UK seasonal agricultural workers.
“Without urgent clarity on the UK Government’s intentions for the future of the Seasonal Workers Scheme, planting and investment decisions cannot be taken, and the sector could face severe productivity and financial challenges in the 2021 season and beyond.”
The NFUS says it understands that the UK Government intends to review the current pilot imminently, with a view to deciding how, or indeed if, it will replace the scheme following the end of free movement from 2021 onwards.
It added that it has also written to MPs calling for a fully functional Seasonal Workers Scheme that will ensure Scotland’s fruit, veg and ornamental sectors can secure the necessary numbers of non-UK staff in the future.
Chair of the Union’s Specialist Crops committee, James Porter, said: “The industry’s response during the pandemic has shown how vital a reliable, experienced overseas workforce, with a high level of returnees, is to these sectors. While we were successful in recruiting a larger number of local workers this year, the vast majority of the workforce were still sourced from out with the UK. For many years, growers have been unable to fill vacancies from the domestic workforce, and this will continue to be the case as horticulture – an innovative, high-value sector of UK agriculture – invests in its future expansion.
“That is why the UK Government must arrive quickly at a decision which genuinely recognises the clear need for Scottish and UK horticultural operators to recruit workers from outside the UK through a sector-specific, seasonal scheme. The lead-in time for recruiting seasonal labour is around nine months and it is the view of NFUS that the UK Government’s lack of clarity on the sector’s ability to recruit workers from outside the UK from January 2021 onwards is untenable.
“Without urgent clarity on the UK Government’s intentions for the future of the Seasonal Workers Scheme, planting and investment decisions cannot be taken, and the sector could face severe productivity and financial challenges in the 2021 season and beyond.
“More than 40% NFUS horticultural members who responded to our most recent survey stated that they would cease activity altogether if they could not recruit workers from outside the UK. Loss of this productive capacity because of worker shortages would be highly damaging to Scotland’s agricultural output and the rural economies and communities which horticultural operations underpin in Scotland.”