Farmers and soft fruit business owners are being plunged back into uncertainty over staffing levels for next year’s harvest, with the UK Government still to guarantee a seasonal worker’s scheme for the year ahead.
Scotland’s agricultural sector has been hit hard by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
Farmers warned crops were left to “rot” because of a shortage of workers.
To address earlier concerns, a Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s Scheme was expanded to allow 30,000 overseas nationals into the UK to work, for six months, in the country’s fields.
It followed a “dismal” campaign to recruit UK staff to pick and work in the country’s agricultural sector.
It also emerged the 2020 pilot scheme was rife with exploitation. There were numerous reports of human trafficking and modern slavery being recorded.
Asked to address concerns for the next year’s season, the UK Government’s Home Office said the future of the scheme was being “actively considered”.
But the department refused to confirm if it will be renewed.
Complaint to Home Secretary Priti Patel
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross took concerns to his Tory colleague, Home Secretary Priti Patel.
There are also parts of the UK farming sector, such as soft fruits, who have a need for migrant labour as automation is not yet a viable option for them.”
– Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross.
He wants her to simplify any new scheme and to confirm whether the programme will go ahead.
Mr Ross said: “The lack of a guarantee the scheme will continue into next year has led to the sector being unable to plan its workforce for the future.”
He continued: “The pandemic has further exacerbated issues around the availability of staff.
“If we want the sector, as with other parts of the UK economy, to reduce its dependence on migrant labour then we need to give them stability around workforce quotas and the schemes which will be available to them, so they can invest in their production and existing staff.
“There are also parts of the UK farming sector, such as soft fruits, who have a need for migrant labour as automation is not yet a viable option for them.”
He continued: “With this in mind, I would welcome an early announcement the Seasonal Agricultural Pilot scheme will continue into next year and there is work ongoing to make the scheme permanent.
“This will give certainty to farming businesses of the workforce they will have access to so they can better plan investments for the year ahead.”
The pilot is not designed to offset the sector continually.”
– Home Office statement
The Home Office said it was important the country’s farm and agricultural employers made working in the industry more appealing to prospective employees.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “We have a highly resilient food supply chain and well-established ways of working with the sector to address supply chain disruptions.
“We understand the importance of seasonal labour in supporting a successful and effective agricultural and food sector. This year we expanded the agricultural Seasonal Workers Pilot to 30,000 visas for workers from across the globe to come to the UK for up to six months.
“However, the pilot is not designed to offset the sector continually.
“We encourage the sector to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options and wage increases – and utilise the Find A Job website, where businesses can upload and manage their vacancies.”