‘Government must deliver farm labour solutions before Brexit’

The Government is being called on to put solutions in place to tackle farming labour issues before Brexit by the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland (NFUS).

The union has written to the Home Secretary Priti Patel to underline the “critical role” in Scottish food and farming of non-UK nationals in taking up seasonal, temporary or permanent positions across the industry, and called on her to make a Seasonal Workers Scheme “a priority”.

The union says that labour availability on farms is an “essential tenant” of no-deal contingency planning.

On seasonal staff, growers need to put plans in place now and can’t do so without confidence that a vastly expanded Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme will be in place.

According to the NFUS, some of its members are reporting that, increasingly, permanent farm jobs that have been filled by EU workers are becoming harder to fill when workers move on.

The union is also arguing that the weakening pound means that EU workers are more likely to go to other parts of the EU to find work – even if an agreement on free movement is signed.

For that reason, the NFUS is arguing that emergency planning on labour supplies should focus on non-EU countries such as Ukraine and Moldova.

Without non-UK workers the whole agri-food supply chain – farms, processors and hauliers – will be unable to maintain productivity and the current provision of food to UK consumers.

In the letter, NFUS president Andrew McCornick wrote: “There is complete reliance of the time-sensitive soft fruit and field vegetable sectors on a non-UK seasonal workforce. There is simply no substitute for competent staff, and the UK Government recognised these challenges by setting up the Pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.”

But he warned: “While the Pilot scheme is certainly a step in the right direction, the case is clear that it will not provide nearly enough permits if shortages such as those experienced in 2017 and 2018 arise.”

McCornick also criticised the proposal that all permanent staff entering the UK must be working a job that pays upwards of £30,000, saying that such a rule would be “unworkable in the Scottish context and sets an arbitrary threshold with no basis in the reality of employment patterns within Scottish agriculture or food and drink processing”.

He concluded: “If the proposed immigration scheme is not amended to provide access to lower paid workers then the Shortage Occupation List needs to be expanded; and NFU Scotland will be submitting strong evidence to make the case for a differentiated proposal for workers in Scottish agri-food.”