Commenting on the evidence, Committee Chair Pete Wishart MP said:
“While we welcome the fact the Government has launched a Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme, after hearing from sector representatives, it is evidently clear that 2,500 workers will not resolve Scotland’s agricultural workforce crisis, let alone the rest of the UK.
Without a larger scheme it is likely that businesses will face the prospect of not having enough labour for harvest season; resulting in rotting produce. The Government needs to listen to Scotland’s agricultural experts and create a flexible scheme that supports the needs of farmers but is also attractive to workers outside the EU and can compete with existing schemes from other EU countries.”
Impact of shortfall in workers
Scottish farms employ up to 10,000 non-UK nationals in seasonal positions in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors each year. However, some growers have reported a 10-20% reduction in this workforce in recent years which has led to decreased production and rotting produce.
The Committee heard that the sector is reliant on seasonal workers from outside the UK, as the large number of workers required is not readily available in the domestic population in Scotland. Without a steady supply of migrant labour, up to two-thirds of farmers may have to switch to other forms of agricultural activity. The Committee also heard that while automation is possible in some sectors, there will remain significant need for labour in the future.
Seasonal workers pilot scheme
The panel of farmers and growers criticised the UK Government’s seasonal workers pilot scheme for providing an inadequate number of workers needed to sustain the industry. The pilot currently enables 2,500 seasonal workers to come to Scotland. James Porter, of Angus Growers said this number needed to be increased immediately to 10,000. The panel also called for more to be done to make the scheme attractive to young people.
The operators of the pilot scheme, Pro-Force Ltd and Concordia, agreed that the number of workers allocated under the pilot was inadequate, and would struggle to make a significant impact on the workforce shortage in Scotland.
Administrative costs and visa delays
The Committee also heard concern about the high cost of registering for seasonal workers under the new pilot. The cost of registering and being audited for being accepted onto the scheme can be as much as £1000, even for small farms. Many farms have already been audited.
Additionally, the pilot scheme is facing a backlog of delayed visa applications for workers from Moldova and Ukraine, with visas sometimes taking up to 30 days to process. The operators said that these delays meant workers may not be on the ground in time for harvesting seasons.