Britain will not be able to feed itself without the help of seasonal non-UK labour after Brexit, according to the head of a farming union.
NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick said Scotland and the UK are “getting thrown into a meltdown situation as far as labour is concerned”, regardless of a deal or no-deal scenario.
In a blog post on the union’s website, he lamented a shortage in workers last year despite the UK Government implementing the pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
The scheme will allow temporary visas for up to 2,500 non-EU nationals during the transition period due to end in 2020.
Mr McCornick said: “Unquestionably, the obvious sectors that will feel it first will be fruit, veg and horticulture, requiring approximately 10,000 people per year in Scotland alone.
“It is much bigger than that, though. The largest manufacturing sector in the UK is food processing and a big part of their labour is non-UK – more than 50% in the red meat sector; more than 90% of vets in approved meat establishments; upwards of 30% of the permanent staff in the dairy sector, and 40% of staff in egg production (both temporary and permanent).
“Huge numbers of lorries on our roads are driven by non-UK drivers (60,000 approx) and the retail sector requires large numbers of non-UK staff within their supply chains, both shop front and behind doors.
“Already the uncertainty around Brexit is causing a shortfall, leaving fruit and veg unharvested in Scotland last year.”
He added: “When we established a priority list immediately after the Brexit vote, labour requirements sat alongside the need for trade, policy and support.
“We cannot feed our nation without this labour.”
He wrote about the NFU Scotland response to a UK Government consultation on the Shortage Occupations List – something the union president believes is “dismissive of our need” – and questioned how thousands of posts could be filled.
Mr McCornick said: “This does not bode well for Scottish needs, or for the UK.
“These people are essential to make the greater economy work including agriculture. They also contribute to tax-take from their wages and spend in the local economy.
“Even more worryingly, in a no-deal scenario there would be no transition so the free movement of people would stop immediately.
“We need the UK Government to give a strong policy statement on how they are going to fill that void of approximately 60,000–70,000 seasonal workers UK-wide that would immediately be created in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“And that is purely a void of seasonal workers – the uncertainty that would also be levied on workers in permanent positions would be considerable, and with nothing in place to allow for staff turnover, we could be facing exponential damage right up and down the supply chain.”
SNP MSP Gail Ross said: “Even before Brexit, Scotland’s agricultural industry has recently struggled to attract the seasonal workers we need – with the political environment and the falling pound making the UK a less attractive place to work.
“This industry depends on seasonal labour. With low unemployment and agricultural jobs located outside population centres, these jobs can’t be easily filled by existing Scottish residents.
“Yet the Tory approach to Brexit and immigration treats our vital farming industry with complete contempt – and risks leaving our crops rotting in the fields.
“Scotland needs an immigration system that meets our needs – and the power to deliver it.”