Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

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

1 Introduction and Background

1.1 Introduction

This report presents the findings of a 2017 study, commissioned by the Scottish Government, to examine the use, roles and conditions of seasonal migrant labour in Scottish agriculture. This work draws extensively on the expertise and knowledge of Scottish farm businesses, processors, labour providers, workers, agencies and stakeholders; particularly those engaged in Scotland’s fruit and vegetable sector.

The report presents key findings from a range of sources including Scottish Government administrative data, surveys of farmers and seasonal migrant workers, farmer and wider stakeholder interviews and group interviews with seasonal migrant workers. The results are presented thematically throughout the report, with a concise literature summary presented for each theme, followed by an overview of key statistics and worker and business perspectives for each theme. Farmer and migrant worker group interviews were carried out on within a set of five case studies (based on region/ type of business). Where feasible and relevant some cross-comparison between case studies is presented. Six main themes are used to report the findings:

i) Labour trends, recruitment mechanisms and worker pathways;

ii) Motivations for working in Scotland and negative/positive aspects;

iii) Working and living conditions;

iv) Family, community and integration

v) Worker retention, Brexit and key future challenges and opportunities.

vi) International comparisons

1.2 Background

The seasonality of labour demand in agriculture, coupled with the physical nature of the work, has resulted in some sectors of the UK agricultural industry, such as horticulture and dairy, becoming increasingly reliant on a supply of labour from outside the UK. Many Scottish farm businesses, along with those in the wider agri-food supply chain (e.g. food processors), hire both permanent and seasonal non- UK workers (Swales and Baker, 2016). Maintaining the seasonal supply of labour is critically important in retaining the competitiveness of these agricultural sectors, an issue that has become a major concern for many farmers following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in June 2016.

The last decade has witnessed the movement of many migrant workers, mainly from central and eastern European countries, to the UK (Ciupijus, 2011). This was largely a consequence of the expansion of the EU through the accession of the so called ‘A8’ countries [1] in 2004 and ‘A2’ countries [2] in 2007, which gave their citizens the right to participate in the UK labour market. Indeed, McCollum et al. (2012) estimated that over a million labour migrants, driven by significant wage disparities, entered the UK between 2004 and 2011, with many finding employment in agriculture, where demand for labour-intensive jobs persists (Rogaly, 2008). McCollum et al. (2012) suggested that A8 migrants form “ a relatively significant proportion of the UK agricultural workforce”, estimating that up to a quarter of the UK’s agricultural workforce could be from these countries. As a result, international workers have become a significant part of the British agricultural workforce (Cooke et al., 2011). This is especially the case in labour-intensive tasks such as harvesting, packing and primary processing of relatively high-value products like fresh fruit, vegetables, salads and ornamental shrubs and flowers (Anderson et al., 2006), where much of the work is seasonal.

Labour conditions, minimum wage rates and the role of migrant workers in the agriculture sector remain key concerns for the Scottish Government. However, data surrounding these issues is often poor, with UK level data either having very small sample sizes in Scotland, or combining rural industries (e.g. farming, fishing, and forestry). Whilst the Scottish Government’s June Agricultural Census ( JAC) [3] records days worked by migrant workers, it currently does not collect data on the numbers of workers employed. Challenges such as workers potentially working on multiple farms, means that it is difficult to accurately report the extent of seasonal migrant labour use in Scottish agriculture.

It is against this background that the Scottish Government commissioned this project to provide a better understanding of the seasonal labour market in Scottish agriculture. This research has produced new information on the amount of seasonal migrant labour used in Scottish agriculture, employment channels, benefits to and challenges faced by businesses using migrant labour, and reliable (case study based) information relating to the perceptions and motivations of this important workforce.

The specific objectives of the study were to:

  • Clarify what is known about seasonal agricultural migrant workers in Scotland from the existing evidence and academic literature, and highlight gaps in the knowledge base;
  • Provide data on other similar EU states for comparison;
  • Develop evidence from case studies on a range of sectors within agriculture to identify:
    • Reasonable estimates of seasonal jobs,
    • Migrant nationality,
    • Pay, hours and conditions for seasonal migrant workers,
    • Patterns of migration into Scotland, and within Scotland through the picking seasons,
    • Duration of stay per annum and per sector,
    • Migration to other EU states, where this occurs,
    • Effects of age, gender and qualifications on these issues.

The project addresses significant gaps in the information available about seasonal migrant workers in Scotland and therefore improves the evidence base on this important group of workers. This new evidence base can be used to inform a number of national policy domains at a critical time as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is negotiated – including immigration policy, agriculture and rural policy, labour market policies and economic development policies – as well as the work of specialist organisations such as the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board ( SAWB).

In Focus Box 1 Examples of permanent EU workers in Scottish agri-food sector

It should be noted at the outset that this project only examined the use of seasonal migrant labour on Scottish farms and did not investigate the use of permanent agricultural workers of non- UK origin (as they are covered by other official surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey). We were given numerous examples of the importance of non- UK individuals as permanent workers, for example in the dairy, haulage and food processing sectors. This anecdotal evidence alone suggests that the total extent of the use of non- UK farm workers in Scotland is significant, with ‘work ethic’ and ‘lack of an appropriately skilled and motivated domestic workforce’ commonly cited reasons for their use. For example:

  • Stuart Ashworth of Quality Meat Scotland commented that “ Where non- UK labour is of fundamental importance to the red meat supply chain is in the slaughter and processing sector. Not only is non- UK labour important on the factory floor but it is also key in respect of veterinary inspection” (Quality Meat Scotland, 2017a). QMS (2017b) reported that Food Standards Scotland estimate that 98% of their official veterinarians are of non- UK origin. In the meat processing sector there is little seasonality in labour requirements, apart from a small peak in employees in the run up to the two busiest trading periods, Christmas/New Year and Easter. Figures from the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers suggest that 43% of meat processing sector workers come from the EU with recruitment of local staff a sometime challenging due to perceptions of the nature of the work (Pers Comm. SAMW, 2017 [4] ).
  • In the dairy sector the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (2017c) estimate 56% of dairy farmers currently employ workers from the EU. Half of the dairy farmers responding to a 2016 survey had experienced difficulty recruiting staff within the previous five years. Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia and Hungary were common sources of overseas dairy labour and ‘willingness to work’ was often cited as the reason for their use. Some respondents to surveys conducted during this research emphasised that their dairy labour force was significantly of EU origin (‘hard working’ and ‘no local labour’ were the drivers), and any restrictions on the movement of labour would affect their scale of operation. For example one farmer with two permanent Scottish and sixteen permanent EU dairymen stressed that he could not source UK workers – his wage bill for these workers was about £400,000 – and without this workforce he would have to look at automation and reduce his scale of production.


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