Scots press for EU workers scheme as soft fruit crops rot

NFU Scotland is continuing to press Westminster on the urgent need for a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) for workers outside the European Economic Area to be introduced as soon as possible.

Despite repeated warnings from the Union, this has turned into a season that has seen tonnes of soft fruit rotting on Scottish farms because of problems sourcing pickers, at a considerable loss to individual businesses and the wider rural economy.  As a result, the union has called for a SAWS pilot to be set up this year, with a full SAWS scheme available in Spring 2019.

Looking to break the deadlock on seasonal workers, NFUS Horticultural Chairman, James Porter, hosted a visit by the Minister of State for Immigration, Caroline Nokes MP at East Scryne near Carnoustie.  Local MP Kirstene Hair also attended along with Fife-based soft fruit and veg grower Tom Stockwell, Barnsmuir Farm, Crail.

Last month, NFUS took a cross-party group of MPs from Westminster’s influential Scottish Affairs Committee to visit West Jordanstone Farm at Alyth where the Marshall family had already had to leave 60 tonnes of strawberries and raspberries to rot due to a lack of available staff to pick them.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Porter said: “We have repeatedly raised our concerns regarding the availability of seasonal and permanent labour in the agriculture and food processing industries with the Home Office. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss this face-to-face with the Minister.

“There has been recognition by many politicians and several committees at Westminster of the issue but little action to date.  I urge Government to trial a new SAWS scheme for workers from outside the EU now, and not wait for the Migration Advisory Committee to report in the autumn, as by that time it will be too late to have something in place for spring 2019.

“The Irish Government has already heeded its industry’s concerns about labour shortages and implemented a trial scheme of this sort. A similar trial here would allow its success or otherwise to be assessed and a full scheme made available next year.

“Such a scheme is needed urgently.  Throughout this current season, we have had evidence from several growers that large amounts of crop have been lost due to a lack of labour available to pick. Losses for businesses that have been impacted are running in to the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“While the soft fruit season is now well through, it is anticipated that the problem will continue if not worsen as the year continues.  We have warned the Government that vegetable and blueberry growers will be short of workers again in the autumn, which will again lead to avoidable crop loss of much needed home-grown fruit and veg.  This could be addressed by immediately allowing a trial scheme for workers from outside the EU.

“Despite being a relatively small part of Scottish agriculture, our soft fruit and field vegetable industries are extremely productive – generating more than 10% of Scotland’s annual agricultural output. It is simply unacceptable that labour shortages are now threatening the very existence of Scotland’s horticultural industry, which should otherwise be a Scottish agricultural success story with growers keen to invest, innovate and grow their businesses.

“We will continue to work with Ms Nokes, the Home Office and Scottish MPs, stressing the urgency of getting a pilot SAWS in place for workers outside the European Economic Area this year and inject some much-needed confidence back into the horticultural industry.”

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.