Concern had been expressed by farmers operating in this area, to both the NFU and to NFU Scotland, about the decrease in foreign labourers since the Scottish Referendum in June 2016. This decrease has been significant and has led to some summer crops remaining unpicked and thus farmers losing money.
Scotland’s Rural College was commissioned by the Scottish Government in summer 2017 to undertake a research project, with a view to understanding the labour market in Scottish agriculture. The final report was published in March 2018 and in that reference was made to a seasonal worker pilot scheme. In addition a House of Commons briefing paper published in July 2017 highlighted the importance of migrant workers in agriculture and examined concerns about labour shortages within the industry. This was followed by a report on Immigration and Scotland by the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee. That Committee concluded that there was already insufficient labour to meet current demand for agricultural workers and recommended that the Government introduce a new seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme as soon as possible.
This is not the first such scheme. There was formerly the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which was introduced in 1945 to address post-war labour shortages and to enable UK fruit and vegetable growers to recruit migrant workers. In its most recent form, until 2013 when the rights of free movement came in, the scheme provided for Bulgarian and Romanian workers to work for up to six months in low skilled agricultural work.
Both the EU and the UK Government’s plans are for a continuation of EU seasonal worker rights from early 2019 to December 2020. The Scheme will:-
- enable non-EU migrants to obtain visas during the transition period after Brexit;
- offer visas for a period of up to six months;
- allow employers in the horticulture industry to recruit up to 2,500 workers per year; and
- will be monitored closely for a trial period of two years, after which the Government will decide how best to support the longer-term needs of the industry.
The pilot scheme aims to fill the recruitment gaps. However, there is already a significant anticipated shortfall in numbers. In 2017 it was estimated that there was a need for just over 9000 seasonal workers in Scotland, and last year there was deemed to be a shortfall of between 10% and 20%.
Currently it is unclear whether this pilot scheme will support farms that need continuity of key workers over a prolonged period. It is a concern that, as the scheme prefers new workers each season, the added value of being able to retain retaining staff across seasons will be lost. This could result in greater costs and lost productivity to both the business and the individual worker, through the need for new workers to undergo training and familiarisation.
It is also currently unclear how the scheme will be governed in practice. Further details are expected in the 6 April changes to the immigration rules (usually announced at start of March), and a further update will be provided then. In the meantime it is also worth noting that the White Paper on Immigration suggests that the Home Office may introduce short term visas for EU nationals coming to the UK after 2021 for this type of work, but individuals would not be able to return every season and would need to be outside the UK for 12 months between visas.