Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

Case studies examining farm workers in Scottish agriculture and the international seasonal migrant labour market.

10 Conclusions and recommendations

10.1 Conclusions

Based on multiple surveys and a comprehensive range of interviews with workers, farmers and wider stakeholders, as well as literature review and secondary data analysis, this report provides a substantial evidence base to support future decision making relating to the seasonal agricultural migrant labour force in Scotland.

  • The majority of workers arrive, work for the vast majority of their time on-farm and leave at the end of their season, with many people in Scotland largely oblivious to their critical role in Scottish agriculture. As evidenced here, the seasonal migrant labour workforce represents the cornerstone of the horticultural industry – with no clear alternative in terms of either a UK-based workforce or a mechanised approach to harvesting available in the near future.
  • The historical decline of UK-based workers in seasonal farm jobs can be traced back to a variety of factors, including an increasing emphasis within the sector on high quality fresh fruit (and supermarket supply chains), regulatory changes and a de-valuing of seasonal farm jobs. Production systems and market demands within horticulture have evolved with a continually increasing reliance on foreign labour, with very limited scope for any significant reversal to a system supplied (even partially) by domestic labour. As evidenced by the farm business survey and interviews, without access to sufficient numbers of seasonal migrant workers the vast majority of case study farms and surveyed farms would be forced to change their modes of operation.
  • There were estimated to be over 9,200 seasonal migrant workers engaged in Scottish agriculture (including 900 provided through labour providers) during 2017. About 25% work on more than one farm in the UK and there is also transition to other sectors of work, in particular food processing and hospitality.
  • Around two-thirds of the seasonal migrant workforce are estimated to come from Romania and Bulgaria. However, the country of origin has evolved significantly over time as a result of government schemes, restrictions imposed within those schemes and EU laws. If EU workers face greater restrictions in the future the evidence from the pre-2007 SAWS scheme is that workers will come to Scotland from a multitude of countries where a significant minimum wage gap exists. Whilst there a more liberal approach to sourcing workers may be a solution to future labour needs, businesses are likely to face: (a) additional transaction costs of recruitment and training: (b) potential for greater language barriers: and (c) social and cultural challenges.
  • While the activities carried out by seasonal workers are often referred to as ‘unskilled’, the evidence is that there many tasks being undertaken require considerable skill and care, to ensure products reach the market in prime condition. The evidence presented here also highlights that the majority of migrant workers are both highly motivated and experienced in agricultural work. Many workers are relatively well educated and have often left employment in their own country, with the aim of coming to Scotland to earn and save sufficient amounts to improve their quality of life and that of their families. Wage and currency differentials are therefore critical and the factors of greatest importance in driving the current system of labour movement. Whilst ‘take-home’ wages have been affected by exchange rates farms have limited ability to increase wages to their workforce due to retail pressures and international competitiveness.
  • A major seasonal spike in the numbers of migrant workers is evident, confirmed across multiple sources, with the majority of workers working relatively short (2-4 month) seasons, coinciding with the main summer harvest period on large fruit farms. Nevertheless, considerable numbers of seasonal workers are also present outside of this seasonal peak period, with some workers returning more than once across the year.
  • Returnee workers represent a critical component of the workforce, with established farm-worker relationships and worker familiarity with farms a key motivating factor for returning for many experienced workers. These experienced workers play a key role in referring new workers (a key source of new labour) and providing a strong base of experience which can be shared across teams of mixed experience.
  • Most farms are reliant on a minority of highly experienced ‘keystone’ returnee workers who work for the bulk of the year on-farm or follow a multi-season pattern of working. These workers commonly play a role in worker supervision and coordination, as well as often multi-tasking to address problems where and when they arise. The possible loss of this core group was recognised as potentially disproportionate (to their actual numbers) due to their critical roles and high levels of knowledge and experience of farm systems. The relative experience of many workers, combined with the fact they generally live on-site without dependents and are highly motivated, has led to the development of a highly efficient and flexible horticultural workforce – specifically suited to addressing the market demands of deadline-driven supermarket supply chains.
  • In general, seasonal migrant workers have very positive perspectives on working and living conditions on Scottish farms; positive working environments and ‘respectful employers’ represent key reasons why workers return to Scotland over multiple seasons. Nevertheless, recent declines in the value of Sterling and the relative distance of Scottish farms from Europe suggests that farm reputations and specific aspects of working conditions have become more important within an increasingly competitive labour market – particularly for attracting new workers. It is therefore critical that Scottish farms build on existing positive reputations and ensure the development of attractive working environments, considering a range of factors including possibilities for extending their seasons and ensuring the availability of consistent working hours, limiting ground-based picking, ensuring accommodation is of high quality and priced competitively and providing new workers with sufficient training and opportunities to work with experienced skilled workers early in their season.
  • The majority of workers show a clear desire to return for further seasons of work to Scotland; however, this is offset against widespread uncertainty within the labour force and concern relating to possible further weakening of Sterling and potential visa requirements in future years. Furthermore, the majority of workers aspire to return to their country of origin (as opposed to settling in the UK), particularly those with young families at home. However, timescales for returning were often uncertain due to concerns around workers home economies.
  • A minority of workers are clearly interested in working and living more permanently in the UK, particularly experienced younger workers (with English language skills) who do not have children at home. There is clear evidence that some seasonal workers have become more established in Scottish agriculture, and have managed to obtain more permanent positions, often as supervisors. Some crossover from the seasonal worker labour force to the permanent wider agricultural workforce (e.g. food processing) is also evident although the evidence presented here for this crossover is limited as it was beyond the scope of this project (although worthy of further investigation).
  • Brexit and related uncertainties have clearly impacted on both the horticultural industry generally and more specifically on the availability of migrant workers. The declines evident in the availability of seasonal migrant workers in 2017 (particularly those reported by recruitment agencies) were a significant concern for those in the horticultural industry, with the underlying drivers likely to include the decline in the value of the pound, worker uncertainty (and feeling less welcome) and improvements in the home economies of some EU countries and associated opportunities for students. These declines in worker availability are further compounded by a decline in the availability of younger and high efficiency (very fast pickers) workers, with the average age of workers increasing in recent years.
  • The origins of workers have shown a clear shift linked to the closure of SAWS and the expansion of the EU. Critically, as returnee workers achieve their key goals (e.g. building a home) in their home countries, this may also result in gradual declines in returnee numbers, compounded by a decline in the availability of referrals and new workers available through recruitment agencies and an overall loss of experience within the seasonal migrant worker workforce. A factor which further threatens worker availability for UK farms is the availability of opportunities for seasonal work in other countries – with many workers identifying this as an opportunity should UK requirements become restrictive and Sterling weaken further. Germany and Scandinavia were both viewed favourably by the case study workers that were interviewed, although most did not currently see them as preferential workplaces over the UK. Furthermore, most workers did not have a definite alternative plan should working in the UK become increasingly challenging.
  • Due to the combination of factors discussed above, the availability of seasonal migrant labour represents both short and long-term concerns for the industry, suggesting a need to identify alternative labour sources (e.g. outwith the EU) or alternative approaches to harvesting (particularly if there is a future trade approach that “ lower prices for consumers” under Brexit (Defra, 2018)). Critically, the horticultural sector faces a potent combination of factors with respect to labour availability, including the decline in the value of the pound, potential additional visa costs for workers and/or farmers (and visa complexity), a lack of any viable mechanical harvesting alternative or local source of labour, improvements in the home economies of key EU countries (e.g. Poland), potential recruitment saturation in Bulgaria and Romania and increasingly competitive labour markets across Europe. These factors are effectively leading to an incremental decline in workforce availability due to declines in the numbers of returnees, referrals and new workers, as well as an increase in the average age of migrant workers and a reduction in worker quality. Combined with reduced availability during peak harvest periods, this ongoing incremental decline has the capacity to reduce the profit margins of fruit and vegetable farms considerable, due to crop losses and the need to employ workers for increasing amounts of overtime. Should worker availability remain in decline, this has the potential to result in the loss of some farms and impact the overall viability of the horticultural industry, with knock-on impacts for local rural economies, and the sustainable, inclusive growth of the Scottish national economy.
  • Notably, this report explored in detail only the seasonal component of the migrant workforce. As has been noted previously, permanent (non-seasonal) migrant workers represent an important additional component of the workforce both within agriculture and other sectors – a factor worthy of further study and quantification in its own right. Furthermore, the report has made no attempt to quantify the economic importance and impact of the seasonal or permanent migrant agricultural workforce in Scotland.

10.2 Recommendations

10.2.1 Managing business and worker uncertainty

A key overarching recommendation from this work is the development of clear commitments and statements on the part of the UK and Scottish Governments, expressing support for the horticultural industry and identifying/agreeing the ongoing need for access to sufficient numbers of seasonal migrant workers. Specifically, such statements should recognise the critical value of the seasonal migrant labour workforce, the lack of current alternative sources of labour and the threats to the Scottish horticulture sector as evidenced in this report. Government statements represent a key mechanism for reducing uncertainty and reassuring farm businesses, labour providers and recruitment agencies, thereby fostering confidence relating to future business investment, expansion decisions and further economic growth in the horticulture sector.

Critically, statements by the Scottish and UK Government should also target migrant workers, to ensure workers are aware that they are welcome and valued in Scotland and the wider UK. Specifically, a concise direct statement should be drafted (potentially circulated to workers via employers and recruitment agencies) reassuring workers that they are welcome and that all relevant measures are being taken to secure their future employment, particularly recognising the important contribution made by returnee workers.

10.2.2 Recruitment mechanisms and ensuring future access to labour

Utilising a range of recruitment mechanisms provides a more resilient approach to ensuring an adequate supply of seasonal migrant labour over the longer term. In particular, further development is required within the horticultural (and wider agricultural) sector of direct recruitment strategies, including exploring opportunities for coordinated ‘inward missions’ (e.g. from grower groups) to countries currently providing high numbers of workers, as well as countries which represent potential future labour markets. Existing (returnee) workers represent a key mechanism for promoting employment opportunities in Scotland and ‘referrals’ remain an important source of new labour; however, inward missions by employers working in partnership with returnees offers an important opportunity to engage directly with labour pools and market the positive aspects of working in Scotland.

To address existing and ongoing declines in labour availability, the UK and Scottish Government (and the horticultural sector as a whole) should strongly consider potential measures (e.g. recruitment methods and visa scheme development, see below) which can be undertaken to increase access to wider labour markets – beyond the current emphasis on Bulgaria and Romania.

The rapid reinstatement of a renewed Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme or SAWS-like scheme by the UK Government (or a specific Scottish scheme) represents a key potential opportunity for reassuring employers and providing a specific mechanism to ensure worker availability longer term. Any potential scheme should be specific to agriculture in the short term, while potentially considering expansion to other sectors longer term to facilitate movement between sectors, in particular the food processing sector. In designing any new scheme the following should be considered:

  • It must be straightforward to administer and simple to engage with on the part of workers. An online registration system offers potential for rapid registration (potentially administered at both labour provider/recruitment agency and farm-level, overseen by inspectors).
  • Scheme registration should be low cost and/or that registration costs are shared between workers and employers.
  • Scheme requirements incorporate specific measures which facilitate longer term workers (e.g. 10-11 month seasons), multi-season workers (i.e. to allow for multiple entries within a calendar year and ensure retention of experienced workers) and flexibility of movement of workers between farms/employers (unlike the original SAWS scheme which committed workers to one employer). An online registration scheme should incorporate recording of worker initial placements and any subsequent movements/changes in employment.
  • Specific differentiation within the scheme of experienced returnee workers, potentially including a simplified/lower cost registration for returning workers and/or the provision of a longer term seasonal work visa for workers which have worked within the UK/Scotland previously.
  • The use of existing (2017/2018) workforce numbers (as opposed to historical SAWS workforce numbers) as a basis for any potential allotment of scheme quotas for employers (to account for the growth of some farms since the closure of SAWS).
  • The development of adequate measures to protect the confidentiality of the underlying database of scheme registrations – recognising that many larger farms have developed extensive farm-based confidential worker contact databases through long term direct recruitment.
  • The consideration longer term of specific measures within any scheme to facilitate access to labour beyond the EU (e.g. Russia, the Ukraine, North and West Africa and Turkey).

10.2.3 Best practice – maintaining and promoting high standards

The standards of living and working conditions for seasonal migrant workers on Scottish farms is recognised within this report as being consistently high. The horticultural sector as a whole should ensure that working conditions on Scottish farms are maintained to a high standard and improved where possible, to ensure the reputations of Scottish farms are maintained and enhanced within a competitive international labour market. Specific key recommendations relating to ensuring Scottish employers are seen by workers as an attractive option include:

  • Developing measures to support further sharing of best practice and knowledge relating to worker training, accommodation and other factors, across the sector;
  • The provision of farm inductions (in multiple languages) for new workers, to ensure site awareness and clarity of the requirements of their role and their entitlements;
  • Sufficient training for workers to ensure they have the capacity to fulfil their role, including on the job training through working in teams of mixed experience to provide opportunities for learning from co-workers and increasing worker efficiency and potential earnings;
  • Supervision of workers in teams (and by supervisors) with shared languages.
  • Ensuring workers are provided with opportunities wherever possible to share accommodation with friends and family members to support the development of cohesive worker communities and on-farm support networks;
  • The development of on-farm social events and ‘away days’ to allow for workers to relax during non-working periods and increase the potential for socialising and the development of a strong work ethic and positive working relationships between workers and their employers;
  • The development as far as possible of mixed tasks for workers to ensure some diversity within worker workloads (e.g. multiple fruit types and table-top picking);
  • Careful planning of harvesting periods to facilitate as far as possible the availability of consistent working hours for workers to avoid excessive peaks or troughs in activity;
  • Sufficient maintenance of accommodation and renewal of older caravans/mobile homes as required, including provision of adequate wifi to facilitate communication and the provision of sufficient heating and insulation, particularly later in the season;
  • The provision of sufficient transport to allow workers to gain access to local shops and to leave the farm during non-working periods;
  • Maintaining communication with workers after they leave Scotland at the end of the season to ensure they are made aware of job opportunities the following year early in the season.

10.2.4 Monitoring and long term data gathering

Specific measures should be undertaken by the Scottish Government to monitor the numbers of seasonal migrant farm workers in Scotland over the longer term. In particular, a more comprehensive year-on-year assessment of the use of seasonal migrant labour in Scottish agriculture should be undertaken through the June Agricultural Census ( JAC) or through the December Agricultural Survey ( DAS). As a minimum the existing seasonal migrant labour question within the JAC should be expanded to assess numbers of seasonal and permanent workers employed of non- UK origin.

Additional details should be sought at least every second year (perhaps through DAS) regarding the time periods of seasonal workers’ employment, their roles, countries of origin and use of registered labour provider workers. For the larger producers this should not be an onerous task as much of the detail is already reported to membership of schemes such as SEDEX [21] .

Additionally, in order to ensure there is robust data on seasonal migrant workers in the future, a system should be established to cross-check JAC returns from holdings that grow soft fruit to any scale (at a minimum any holding growing more than two hectares of any fruit crop) and where significant discrepancies exist compared to standard labour requirement adjustments to the entry made, or follow up calls to the holder for clarification undertaken.

10.2.5 Recognising the value of the seasonal migrant workforce

Further to the recommendations above, increased efforts should be made by both the Scottish Government and agricultural/horticultural sector to recognise and value the role of seasonal migrant workers within the agricultural sector and wider rural economies and their contribution as experienced employment migrants to the success of the sector. This should incorporate:

  • Enhanced recognition of the role of seasonal migrant workers within the Scottish Government Agricultural Strategy and the future work of the Agricultural Champions;
  • Consideration of potential collaborative mechanisms for wider awareness raising around the role of seasonal migrant labour within Scottish agriculture e.g. through the development of a short film on seasonal workers by the Scottish Government and the agricultural sector.
  • Consideration within Scotland of the role and value of migrant workers outside of the seasonal workforce and both within agriculture and other sectors, potentially through a wider study of the role of non-seasonal migrant workers in multiple sectors in Scotland.
  • As there is a paucity of information on the socio-economic impacts of migrant labour in rural areas, not just in Scotland but internationally, consideration of further investigation into the contribution migrant workers make to economic activity in rural areas (that was beyond the scope of this project) should be made.


Back to top