8 Worker retention, Brexit and key future challenges and opportunities
A majority of workers would preferentially return to work in Scotland in the future; however, most expressed some uncertainty due to concerns around Brexit, the decline in the value of the pound and potential visa requirements.
Most workers aspire to return home permanently longer term, with seasonal work viewed as a mechanism to achieve a specific goal (e.g. a home) and enhance quality of life for workers and their families in their home country. Nevertheless, timescales for returning were often uncertain and seen as subject to improvements in their home country economies.
A small proportion of workers are interested in living and working more permanently in the UK. This cohort are generally experienced younger workers (with English language skills) who did not have children.
Workers expressed concerns regarding Brexit, particularly the decline in value of the pound (a potential influence on whether workers would return), conflicting messages and uncertainty (complicating planning), workers feeling less welcome and potential visa costs.
Some workers were interested in working in other countries (out-with the UK) and would consider this should UK requirements become restrictive and the pound drop further in value, with Germany and Scandinavia viewed favourably – although most did not see them as preferential destinations over the UK currently. Most workers did not have a definite alternative plan should working in the UK become challenging.
Businesses have serious concerns about their future if EU migrant labour access is disrupted with the majority predicting business decline and structural adjustment without access to their workforce.
Businesses believe that any future seasonal agricultural worker scheme be straightforward and administered at farm/labour provider level. There were some concerns expressed that all sectors (soft fruit, vegetables, potatoes, cereals) and business types (farmers and labour providers) must have equal access to any future workers entering through a visa scheme.
Businesses expressed the need for some certainty: a) for their business decisions on plantings / contracts, etc. and (b) for their migrant labour pool.
8.1 Worker perspectives on the future and returning to Scotland
8.1.1 Returning to Scotland in 2018
Respondents in the worker survey were mainly expecting to return to Scotland to work in 2018 (Figure 31). About 40% of the respondents thought that they would definitely be returning in 2018 with a third ‘probably returning’. Only 12% felt that they would not be returning in 2018, with 14% not knowing what their plans are.
Figure 31: Worker respondents perception of whether they will return to Scotland in 2018
Respondents’ that were uncertain about their return to work in Scottish agriculture in 2018 reported that exchange rate impacts (54%) leading to lower effective (home take home) wage rate (42%) were the main drivers of uncertainty. Uncertainty surrounding Brexit and access to the UK was clearly a factor for about a third of workers that had uncertainty over their return, with specific concerns over having to pay visa costs to enter the UK (33%) or harder access to the UK labour market (29%). A quarter of respondents were not returning as they had permanent work arranged, and 23% said their return was uncertain because of a negative experience whilst in working in Scotland (this is linked to the 28% that stated that they had experienced discrimination – as discussed in Section 5.3).
Figure 32: Worker respondent reasons for uncertain return to Scotland in 2018
The majority of interviewed workers across all of the case study farms aspired to return to Scotland for further seasons of farm work, largely due to the earnings potential and their established relationship with a specific business. Despite this, many workers remained uncertain about their future employment, due to Brexit and whether they would be allowed to return, potential future visa costs and the attractiveness in 2018-2019 of other countries for work relative to Scotland/the UK (following the survey responses). Some workers also said they would not be returning for other reasons (e.g. family needs at home and finishing their studies), with a minority interested in trying seasonal work elsewhere (e.g. in England) due to an existing family or friend connection. Nevertheless, the majority of workers did not have a clear alternative plan should returning to Scotland and/or the UK for work become more difficult, although a minority were travelling to other countries for seasonal work when their current period of work in Scotland ended.
Whether workers sought employment in their home country when they finished in Scotland related to the length of their Scottish season. Longer term (i.e. more than 8 months) seasonal workers often did not work when they returned home, instead using the time to see their families and work on their houses (or in some cases smallholdings). Shorter term seasonal workers sometimes returned to part-time work in the winter (e.g. building, retail and factory work), although most viewed the pay in their home country as poor relative to their work in Scotland, and those returning for 2-4 month periods often found it difficult to obtain work on such a short term basis.
In Focus Box 7 Pavlin, fruit farm experience
Pavlin came to work in Scotland on a large fruit farm in 2016 as a fruit picker. In his second season he was made a supervisor, a job he progressed to very quickly in part as a result of his good English skills (a wide mix of worker origins means English is used by supervisors). Pavlin and his colleagues’ English skills have improved further as a result of speaking daily in English. In 2016 he worked in Scotland until August and then worked as an apple picker in England before returning to Bulgaria. Whilst living in England he experienced some negative comments that said he had not experienced whilst living in Scotland. He likes working on this farm as the people he works with have good attitudes and he is not treated like a number, unlike some of the other places he has worked at.
After a couple of months at home Pavlin plans to return to Scotland and the farm to work: “if the money continues to be good, I will come back,…if this changes and it is not so good I will start looking at my options”. In the future he would like to permanently live in Scotland, and he might look for a job in a supermarket and get a flat. If his home country could provide a better standard of living he would never think of coming to live in the UK.
8.1.2 Achieving a goal and moving home permanently
The majority (though not all) of interviewed workers across all case studies and farms aspired to move back to their home countries in the longer term, usually due to family connections. Nevertheless, workers often recognised that this was largely dependent on the financial situation in their home countries improving substantially, with many workers (excluding Polish) commenting that the situation in their home economies seemed to be worsening rather than improving.
Workers commonly viewed the length of time they continued doing seasonal agricultural work as linked to specific end goals – including building a house and improving their quality of life (and that of their families) in their home country. As one Romanian couple stated: “We are building a house now so all the money we make we send home…the house is built but we have to finish it inside…it will take maybe two more years here to finish the house.” Some workers also had shorter term goals (e.g. funding the completion of their studies), while others viewed seasonal work as allowing them to fund a major goal, as well as providing them with the skills to enable this: “ We want to be in Romania and have our own farm so that’s why we are saving the money and we are gaining experience…If we do another 2-3 years we will be able to get a farm but we need more time and money, an eco-farm…where the British can come and enjoy Romanian traditions.” Nevertheless, workers were often uncertain as to how many years they would need to continue with seasonal work, due to the situation in their home country and the uncertainty around this longer term, with a minority suggesting they would consider permanently migrating elsewhere should the situation not improve (e.g. the UK, Australia or Canada).
8.1.3 Aspirations for moving to Scotland/the UK
This is part of a wider theme in the literature emphasising how decision-making can often be open-ended and negotiable following immigration. Despite the challenges that some migrant workers face, this flexibility also leads some workers to stay longer than initially intended (Piętka-Nykaza and McGhee, 2016; Flynn and Kay, 2017). A positive work environment, supportive employers and opportunities for advancement often encourage otherwise seasonal migrants to consider working (often for the same employer) long-term (Rye, 2014), and these benefits may mitigate the difficulties of agricultural work to some extent (Flynn and Kay, 2017). Children are also key to settlement decisions, especially those born in and/or growing up in the UK (Kay et al., 2016). Indeed, a key determinant in not only immigrating but remaining long-term, is the emotional importance of stability, that is, the opportunity to live what Flynn and Kay (2017) call “a normal life”. However, despite references in this report to A8 and A2 countries as a collective, there is no homogenous ‘central or east European community’ (Kay et al., 2016). Any policy intervention in the context of Brexit must therefore account for the varying socio-economic contexts in migrants’ home countries.
The majority of interviewed workers did not aspire to move to Scotland or the UK permanently, although a minority in most case studies showed some interest in this, particularly should the earnings potential in their home countries not improve (reflecting the reality of a minority of workers progressing to permanent). This most commonly included younger workers (often with multiple seasons of experience) who had not yet started a family in their home countries, some of whom viewed seasonal farm work as a possible gateway to more permanent work in Scotland. This aspiration was often viewed cautiously, due to potential complications linked to Brexit, difficulty finding more permanent work and language barriers. In some cases workers had also begun to build a house in their home country and/or had elderly parents at home, factors which further complicated their decision making.
A small number of experienced workers had either begun a UK citizenship application or were exploring this as an option, due to their interest in moving more permanently to the UK and concern related to the implications of Brexit. The more permanent migrant workers interviewed generally viewed their situation very positively and those with children generally viewed themselves as committed to living in Scotland, while some of the younger permanent migrant workers were considering trying other countries for a period (e.g. Canada, Australia) due to the positive experience of living longer term in a different country.
In Focus Box 8 Martin, vegetable producer experience
Martin came to work on a smaller scale vegetable producer 12 seasons ago, when he got the job through agency Concordia. He now plays a key role in the recruitment of staff, and many of the staff on the farm are now from his village in Latvia. This includes some of Martin’s family, who have worked or still work on the farm. When he first came to the farm he was the only Latvian worker but now the entire workforce (between 12-15 people), are Latvian. Nearly all new workers are recruited by word of mouth.
Martin feels that his life would be very different in Latvia “I am still alive because of coming and I have enough to eat”. Martin has a daughter, who stays with her mother in Latvia - he says this is not easy, but they cannot do anything else as he could “only survive” in Latvia. His daughter comes to visit every year for a couple of weeks for a holiday. “ Life is good here - we have a good farmer … if you have problems he always helps…We also have good access to a car which means that people can come and go unlike on other farms where they only go to the shop one day per week.” Martin plans to stay the winter in the UK - in previous years he has worked in vegetable processing and worked in England in a factory. In the long-term he hopes to return to Latvia however at the moment “ you cannot earn work for now but maybe it will be better sometime”. Currently he isn’t sure things are getting better in Latvia and “more than half of my friends work outside of Latvia”.
8.1.4 Alternatives to seasonal farm work in Scotland
The preference for most interviewed workers was to continue doing seasonal work in Scotland, particularly where they had built a relationship with a farm and established a familiar working routine year-on-year. A small minority were interested in trying to find work in England, although some were critical of the working conditions on large fruit farms in England compared to those on Scottish farms. Many workers had not seriously considered their alternatives should working in Scotland/the UK become more difficult. Nevertheless, some identified three factors which might drive them to consider an alternative to seasonal work in Scotland/the UK: (i) a continued decline in the value of the pound; (ii) specific future barriers (e.g. visas) relating to Brexit; and (iii) a significant improvement in the pay and working conditions in their home countries.
Polish workers in particular recognised an upturn in pay and conditions in their home country which has led to an increase in the number of Polish migrants returning home permanently, with this group the most optimistic about future conditions in their home country. Other alternatives for seasonal farm work viewed favourably included Germany (the most frequently identified alternative), Spain, Italy and Scandinavian countries (e.g. Denmark, Norway). Rates of pay were noted as being highest in Scandinavian countries, although travel costs were higher and work more difficult to source. Germany was seen by some as favourable due to the proximity of the work to their home country, the current value of the Euro and a perception of favourable working conditions including rates of pay, although working seasons were shorter.
Language barriers were recognised as a key challenge to working in these countries, with the number of migrants currently in Germany also seen as a challenge. Mediterranean countries were seen by a minority as attractive due to the climate, but pay and working conditions in these countries were seen much less favourably. Workers that had worked multiple seasons in Scotland/the UK often perceived changing to a different country for work as very challenging due to the (possible) need to learn a new language, adapt to a different system of working and get to know a new group of people.
8.2 Perspectives on Brexit
8.2.1 Worker Perspectives on Brexit
Workers had mixed perspectives on Brexit, with some expressing significant unease while others were much less concerned. As one experienced Bulgarian worker noted, many workers had been very concerned following the original announcement, but the long timescales and lack of clear information on the outcomes had resulted in discussions around Brexit becoming a less immediate issue: “in the beginning Brexit had a very bad impact…everyone was very worried, about visas, about money and then it calms down and now everyone is waiting to see what happens.”
Many workers recognised that they came specifically to work in an agreed job and filled a labour requirement for which there was no obvious UK-based alternative: “ I don't think the people from here want to do these jobs…so they need us to do these jobs…Scottish people don't have an appetite for the work, they usually leave” (Romanian worker on a mixed farm). This sentiment informed a belief among some workers that the government would ensure they would be allowed to return and that the impacts of Brexit for them would therefore be negligible. Despite this, many interviewed workers from across the case studies had concerns relating to Brexit such as:
- Conflicting messages and uncertainty: Workers from across all case studies often expressed concern due to a lack of any clarity or ‘answers’ around what Brexit might mean for them in terms of future working in the UK . Some workers said they had stopped reading or thinking about Brexit because “there is too much (information) and too many different versions of what will happen, too many people talking about this and too much lies.” Some workers also identified that thinking about Brexit was counterproductive as it was stressful but outside of their control.
- Difficulty planning for the future: Linked to the perceived uncertainty, some workers referred to difficulty planning for the future. This was particularly emphasised by some of the younger workers with considerable experience of seasonal work in Scotland, who viewed it as an important part of their future. In some cases, where workers had established a strong working relationship with a farm, they had developed an outline plan for their futures which they now saw as uncertain.
- The value of the pound: The most commonly reported, and most significant ‘real’, impact of Brexit thus far was the declining value of the pound relative to the currencies of worker’s home countries. This was seen as having an impact on the amount workers are able to save over the season, with workers referring to a 20-30% loss of earnings since the Brexit announcement due to exchange rates. This value of the pound was repeatedly referred to by workers as a factor which they were considering in relation to whether they would return to the UK for seasonal work. Nevertheless, some longer term workers noted previous similar drops in the value of the pound, with some recognising the decline may be temporary and suggesting they would assess the situation over the longer term before making any decisions.
- Feeling less welcome: A minority stated they felt less welcome in the UK as a result of the Brexit vote, although most differentiated Scotland and England in this respect. Some also recognised that the sentiment behind the Brexit vote may result in some seasonal migrant workers leaving England to work in Scotland, which was seen by some as more welcoming to migrants.
- Costs and flexibility of potential permit/visa schemes: Some workers expressed concern around whether Brexit would result in a visa or permit scheme for seasonal farm workers and questioned what the requirements would be and whether there would be a cost associated with this for them and/or for farmers. Some workers also expressed concern around the duration of a potential permit/visa and whether this would allow them to continue their current (multi-season) working pattern which for some incorporated multiple (2-3) visits to Scotland, totalling 9-10 months across a year. As one experienced Polish worker explained: “ I am most of the time here, so if Brexit will tell me that I can only come here for 3 months I would never do that, so I will look for a job there and that’s it. I am coming here for three months but 3-4 times a year.”
8.2.2 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives on Brexit
Farmers expressed concern about the future of their business should they no longer have access to seasonal migrant workers as a result of Brexit (Figure 33). When faced with a scenario of no access to seasonal migrant labour 63% expressed that they were likely to switch to other agricultural activities, with over half saying they would likely diversify their business into non-agricultural activities. Without access to migrant labour there was a very high likelihood that these farmers (largely fruit, vegetable and potato producers) would either downscale their business or cease production. Over two thirds of the farm business thought there was no real opportunity to substitute labour from the local market and relocation of the business was seen as highly unlikely. Perhaps most telling was that only 18% of the businesses felt that they would be likely to maintain their existing business structure.
Figure 33: Likelihood of changed business activity / practice if no access to seasonal migrant labour
The majority of farmers and wider stakeholders had a strongly negative perception of Brexit and expressed considerable concern relating to the potential short and long term impacts on their businesses. Some farmers also noted that Brexit is already impacting them, with the drop in the value of Sterling and knock-on effect on worker availability in 2017 identified as evidence for this. One farmer commented: “ Currently the labour pool has shrunk and it is much more difficult to recruit new workers. Between the devaluation of the pound and the Brexit worries then the people do not want to come to the UK to work.” Additional specific concerns noted by farmers and stakeholders relating to Brexit can be summarised as:
- A further decline in the availability of seasonal migrant workers, with some farms predicting more significant shortfalls in 2018, potentially exacerbated by any further weakening of Sterling (and therefore earnings potential), workers feeling unwelcome due to the Brexit vote and the potential costs and complexity of any visa requirements (see above).
- Farms and recruitment agencies collectively recognised a lack of any alternative sources of labour or a ‘back up plan’ should worker availability decline significantly, and a lack of any ‘succession planning’ on behalf of the UK government to address declines in labour availability.
- On-going uncertainty around free movement of labour and/or potential visa scheme requirements, as well as whether returnee workers will return in 2018-2019. This was noted by a number of farms as impacting business confidence and resulting in decisions on business expansion and development being delayed (with negative knock-on impacts for local economies, and for the wider national economy).
- The potential for long-term wider economic impacts linked to labour shortages and impacts on trade and market development for agricultural outputs.
Notably, despite general negativity and concern around the implications of Brexit, some farmers and stakeholders also recognised that some of the existing pressures had been present pre-Brexit, including (i) previous recent declines in the value of the pound (2008); (ii) gradual improvements in the home economies of some Eastern European countries (e.g. Poland); (iii) concern around in-migration and xenophobia, and (iv) an increasingly competitive labour market within the EU (e.g. removal of National Insurance contribution requirements for seasonal workers in Germany).
8.3 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives on key challenges and opportunities
8.3.1 Key challenges
As discussed previously an ongoing decline in new migrant labour availability, compounded by a lack of any potential for recruitment of suitable UK-based labour, represents the most widely recognised challenge facing the industry. This may be further compounded by a gradual cumulative decline in the number of returnee workers coming to Scotland – due to many reaching their earnings targets/goals and/or gradual improvements in the economies of their home countries. Additional key challenges (some of which have been outlined in greater detail in previous sections) recognised by farmers and stakeholder include:
- An increasingly competitive labour market (and therefore increasing worker expectations), with a weakening pound potentially contrasting with more favourable factors (e.g. distance from home, tax incentives) in other European countries – leading to further workforce losses. Recruitment agencies highlighted difficulties in recruiting workers for Scottish farms due to the additional travel costs (relative to England), distance from major cities and a perception of Scotland as being “cold and remote” amongst new workers. Competition for labour was recognised as placing increasing pressure (and costs) on farmers (particularly smaller growers) to ensure they were able to provide high quality, warm accommodation, a majority of table top-picking, consistent hours throughout the season and sufficiently long growing seasons.
- Some farmers recognised the regulatory framework around overtime pay and the minimum wage as restrictive (particularly in relation to younger [e.g. aged 16] workers). Restrictions on overtime were also seen as restrictive by some (despite the overtime limit having been extended in 2017 to 48hrs), largely due to a perception that this placed Scotland at a disadvantage relative to England, which has no Agricultural Wages Board and no legal requirement to pay overtime above a certain number of hours.
- As well as farmers and stakeholders recognising that no alternative UK-based labour pool existed, many also noted that no viable mechanical alternative to labour-based harvesting existed for the tasks currently being undertaken by migrant labour. While a minority of large farmers had some experience of mechanical raspberry harvesting, this was seen as resulting in substantial crop losses, damage to the growing crop and inconsistent quality of the harvested fruit. Mechanisation in horticultural harvesting was widely viewed as insufficiently progressed to offer a serious viable alternative solution – at least in the short term (5-10 years).
- Farmers identified an increasing demand from buyers for high quality, high specification products (influenced by the switch to supply supermarket supply chains), including specifications on the size and colour of fruit/vegetables and increasingly stringent regulations around hygiene. Collectively these resulted in higher production costs and tightening margins, a factor compounded by increasing labour costs (through minimum wage increases but also potentially from labour shortages resulting in increased need for overtime pay). Farmers argued these higher costs were not reflected in product price increases, with price negotiations generally concluded before the season began, negating any potential for passing increasing labour/production costs on to the end consumer.
8.3.2 Key opportunities
Further to the concerns around Brexit and wider challenges identified above, farmers and stakeholders identified a number of opportunities or critical actions which offer potential for addressing key challenges:
- Strong leadership and improved clarity around communications on Brexit at political levels, including definitive statements on labour movement and potential future visa requirements for migrant workers. This was seen as presenting an opportunity for minimising uncertainty, thereby increasing business confidence and ensuring workers perceived Scotland (and the wider UK) as a welcoming country with high quality short and longer-term employment opportunities.
- The development of initiatives by the horticultural/agricultural sector and related stakeholders to highlight the importance of seasonal migrant workers in Scottish agriculture and to the Scottish economy. This could potentially include the creation of an accurate up to date evidence base (of which this report is part) and clear valuation of the contribution of seasonal workers (as employment migrants), as well as efforts to promote and communicate their role and value to a wider audience (e.g. through knowledge exchange, press coverage, short films etc.). This report also notes the wider role of permanent migrant workers (in agriculture and other sectors) and the potential crossover between these two groups, with scope for further exploration and quantification of the role migrant workers (seasonal and permanent) play across the agricultural supply chain and in other sectors.
- In parallel with initiatives to value the workforce, some farmers recognised a need to develop a more integrated approach to agricultural policy post-Brexit – and in particular highlight the role and value of the fruit and vegetable industry within the context of the national health and ‘Good Food Nation’ agendas. This was seen as linked to the restructuring of agricultural support, taxation of unhealthy foods and subsidising healthy foods, thereby supporting fruit and vegetable production.
- Recruitment agencies and farmers both recognised the importance of adequately incentivising migrant workers to come to Scottish farms in the future. Due to weakening of Sterling and (in some cases) narrowing wage differentials, additional factors were recognised as increasingly important in terms of workers’ decision making processes. Maintaining and improving standards of worker accommodation, providing sufficient transport options, free Wi-Fi access, ensuring some diversity of tasks and table-top picking, ensuring the development of a strong farm reputation among worker communities and offering end of contract bonuses were all recognised as opportunities in this regard.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme ( SAWS) was widely recognised as having been influential in terms of access to, and origins of, the migrant labour workforce. Farmers noted some limitations of the original SAWS scheme, including restrictions on worker movements (e.g. to a second farm), labour demand exceeding quotas under SAWS and a narrow focus (Bulgaria and Romania) in terms of worker origins. Nevertheless, many farmers and stakeholder viewed a new visa/permit scheme for seasonal migrant workers as critical to ensuring ongoing access to sufficient worker numbers, as well as providing reassurance that the value of the existing workforce was recognised by government – thereby building business confidence and facilitating future growth. Specific concerns were raised however, in relation to the design and operation of any potential visa/permit scheme, with key points raised including:
- The potential for a visa/permit scheme of any kind to act as a disincentive for workers to come to the UK relative to other EU countries – necessitating that any scheme be simple for workers (and farmers) and low cost.
- While recognising the need for the development of a visa/permit system that was not open to abuse and allowed for sufficient monitoring of worker movements, farmers also perceived a need for any scheme to facilitate some flexibility of worker movement between farms to allow workers to work for additional periods at the beginning or end of their main season and ‘top up’ their earnings (with the original SAWS scheme committing workers to one employer). In addition flexibility to allow a period of work outwith agriculture would be beneficial and attractive to potential agricultural workers.
- Inclusion/consideration of measures to ensure workers are not overly restricted in terms of the length of their working periods/seasons. In particular, the inclusion of measures to protect the returnee workforce and facilitate the working patterns of longer term, experienced returnee workers – who collectively provide a critical workforce component, often working in Scotland for 8-9 months a year or longer.
- Case study farmers raised concerns around the basis for how quotas for permits could be usefully set – with any historical basis seen as unsuitable due to the considerable growth of some farms since the closure of SAWS (with worker numbers having more than doubled since then on some farms).
- Some interviewed farmers who placed considerable emphasis on direct recruitment efforts recognised a need for protection of their returnee worker contact databases should any potential scheme be centrally administered. This information, which had been developed over a number of years was viewed as valuable, with the potential for this information to be lost should any scheme return to a system of administration by recruitment agencies.
- For some case study farmers and survey respondents the SAWS scheme was considered as burdensome: “The trouble with SAWS is that they would not allow many returnees as they felt everyone deserved a go! This makes it very difficult as you are effectively paying a lot of money to train pickers every year and it is difficult enough without vast majority being novices.” However, many stressed the need for a new flexible scheme as “ the country of origin is not relevant to us - just availability of good workers.” Farm interviewees highlighted concerns around a perceived need for any future SAWS-type scheme to be straightforward and administered (potentially via an online registration system) at farm/labour provider level - as opposed to controlled by the two main recruitment agencies as was the case with SAWS, which was criticised by some interviewees as a form of labour monopoly.
Within the context of a scheme and more generally, some interviewees recognised a need to explore labour provision options beyond the EU and the main existing providers (e.g. Bulgaria and Romania), due to shifting drivers (e.g. reducing wage differentials and increasing living standards across the EU). Some potential options identified included Russia, the Ukraine, North and West Africa and Turkey. Brexit was recognised by a minority as a potential opportunity in this respect, with the potential for labour transfer arrangements to be developed with a range of countries.