Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

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

5 Worker motivations and perceptions of seasonal farm work

Section Summary:

The primary motivation for coming to work in Scotland was the potential to earn and save significant sums, which was linked to rates of pay, long seasons and low costs, and the impact of this on their quality of life.

Important parallel motivations were the weak economies, poor working conditions/pay and lack of progression in worker’s home countries.

An additional important motivation for returnee or invitee workers was worker familiarity with specific farms or recommendations from friends/family.

Specific motivations can vary and established farm-worker relationships represented a critical motivation for returning for many long-term returnees.

Negative aspects identified by workers included weather conditions and related disruption of working hours; separation from friends and family and the resulting pressure on their families; cultural differences and language barriers; the requirement to gain new skills and adopt different working patterns; and the weakening of Sterling.

Workers identified positives more frequently than challenges and collectively viewed Scotland positively. The most commonly identified positive (across all farm types) was earnings potential and the impact of this on quality of life for workers and their families. Additionally respectful employers and good farm-worker relationships were frequently highlighted (particularly on small/medium sized farms) – suggesting that farm-worker relationships are key to ensuring high returnee numbers.

Additional positive aspects identified included: Scotland being seen as a welcoming country with friendly people; low work-related stress; the potential for skills development (including languages) and career progression (e.g. to becoming a supervisor); and, feelings of safety, security and stability.

Farmer and stakeholder perspectives of worker motivations echoed those of workers themselves, with farmers recognising that motivations varied between nationalities, based largely on the degree of financial disadvantage. Farmers and recruitment agencies also recognised the growing importance for farms to have a positive reputation among workers as an attractive farm in relation to working and living conditions.

5.1 Background literature

There are many reasons why employers in the agriculture sector often prefer to hire non-British workers. An equally important perspective for this research is that of the workers themselves, and their motivations and aspirations for coming to Scotland to work.

Employment is by far the most common reason for immigration to the UK and Scotland (Kay et al., 2016). According to ONS, work-related migration from the EU to the UK soared from 83,000 in June 2012 to 189,000 by June 2016. In 2016 overall, nearly 7 in 10 EU migrants coming to the UK said they did so for work-related reasons, with 45% holding a “definite job” and 24% “looking for work” ( ONS, 2017). Crucially, future job prospects also play a key role in migrants’ decision-making (Flynn and Kay, 2017), which has important implications for this workforce given the myriad uncertainties of Brexit. ONS (2018) note declining EU migrants to the UK during 2017, with lower in migration and higher out-migration meaning “ EU net migration has now returned to the level last seen in 2012.”

The amount of earnings that can be earned by migrant and seasonal workers influences whether or not they look for work outside of their home country. Rogaly (2008) found that EU migrants endure hard work and long hours in the agricultural sector because of the relatively high earnings when converted into their own country’s currency. It should be noted that minimum wage disparities are shrinking across the EU, with some of the fastest increases coming in A8 and A2 countries, especially Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovakia and Latvia (Figure 20). Nevertheless, significant discrepancies still exist, with the primary and hospitality sectors often having the lowest average wages. In Romania for example, wages in agriculture, forestry and fishing were only 26% of the national average in 2015 (Ghita and Boboc, 2017).

Figure 20: Changes in minimum wages in the EU

Figure 20: Changes in minimum wages in the EU

Source: Extracted from Eurostat (2017)

Whilst the minimum wage in many A8 and A2 countries has grown rapidly, they have not kept up with minimum wage growth in the UK (which had a much higher starting base). Eurostat reports that the minimum monthly wage:

  • Grew by 55% in the UK from €902 in 1999 to €1,401 in 2018;
  • Grew nearly eight-fold in Bulgaria from €31 in 1999 to €261 in 2018;
  • Grew fifteen-fold in Romania from €27 in 1999 to €408 in 2018;
  • Grew five-fold in the Czech Republic, from €92 in 1999 to €478 in 2018.

The absolute growth in UK minimum wage rates compared to other EU countries means that the minimum wage gap has actually grown over the period (as shown in Figure 21), despite the considerable minimum wage rate growth in A2 and A8 countries previously discussed. However, since 2016 the UK has become less attractive and minimum wage differentials have fallen (ranging from €157 per month for Bulgarians to €287 per month for Romanians).

Figure 21: Minimum wage differential of selected countries compared to the UK, 1999 to 2107

Figure 21: Minimum wage differential of selected countries compared to the UK, 1999 to 2107

Source: Extracted from Eurostat (2017)

Beyond employment, aspirations and motivations for seeking seasonal employment in the UK’s agricultural sector are multitudinous. Typically these involve issues relating to workers gaining some form of financial independence or honing their English language skills, and the latter is especially the case for EU-based university students with professional aspirations after graduating (Rogaly, 2008; Acik et al., 2015). Young migrants in particular are more motivated by “the wish to take control of their lives” than concrete objectives, which enables a degree of flexibility post-emigration (Bloch et al., 2014). Parutis (2014) also explained how work-based immigration led to enhanced “ social, cultural and economic capital” for workers.

5.2 Worker motivations

The results from the worker survey (Figure 22) revealed the motivations behind decisions to come to Scotland for farm work. Corroborating the literature, stakeholder views and wage evidence, it was unsurprising that for 63% of the respondents, a higher rate of pay was the most important factor in coming to Scotland for farm work (with only 16% saying this was the least important motive). Joining friends and family was the second largest driver, followed by better working conditions, then to learn English. Interestingly, previous positive experience was the least important motivation, but that reflects that more than a third of respondents were in Scotland for their first working season.

This reiterates that the motivations for workers coming to Scotland are often a complex mix of financial reward, social networks and aspirations to learn a new language, particularly as an entry-point to further, non-agricultural work in the UK.

Figure 22: Worker Motivations for coming to Scotland

Figure 22: Worker Motivations for coming to Scotland

Despite individual motivations for coming to work in Scotland varying significantly, the major motivating factors were relatively consistent with interviewees, both across case study groups and individual farms. The three main motivations for coming to work in Scotland amongst the workers interviewed were: (i) earnings potential linked to enhanced quality of life and goals; (ii) conditions of work relative to home countries; and (iii) familiarity, recommendations and farm reputations. These themes and ‘other factors’ are outlined below and summarised in Table 10, which shows their relative importance based on comments and frequency of mention across the interviews.

Table 10: Worker motivations by order of emphasis/frequency of mention

Primary Primary/ Secondary Secondary Additional Factors
Earnings potential & long term goals: Rate of pay Season length Low cost accommodation Low living costs Value of £ Goals; car, studies, house Home Country Conditions: Weak home economies Low quality employment Lack of progression Worker treatment Familiarity and recommendations: Long term farm knowledge Farm friendships Recommendations from family/friends Improving English Scottish culture Life experience Pathway to new opportunities

5.2.1 Earnings potential and long term goals

The opportunity for workers to earn at higher rates than in their home countries, combined with the potential for saving and thereby enhancing their quality of life, was the most frequently identified and strongly-emphasised motivation for working in Scotland. During the case study interviews earnings differentials were commonly referred to. Working for 4-6 months in the UK was identified as generating sufficient savings to allow workers to ‘survive’ for the remainder of the year at home and/or enhance their overall quality of life, and that of their family, than if they had continued working at home.

Sending earnings home was a common theme and widely evident across the case studies, including workers sending earnings home to support their partners and children and in some cases their siblings or parents. The combination of three key factors was crucial in facilitating sufficient ‘take home’ savings: (i) the wage differential and value of the pound relative to their home currencies; (ii) keeping living costs low in the UK by limiting off-farm activity and spending during free-time; and (iii) low cost accommodation. Workers often had a specific savings target or goal in mind, with the length of their stay and emphasis on repeat visits over a period of time usually linked to their goal. Some of these goals expressed during interviews included:

  • Students commonly worked for 2-3 months (often repeatedly during their studies) to support their studies;
  • Some workers visit for 2-3 months to save for a car;
  • Homeownership was a common goal among working couples and/or workers with young families, with workers often identifying a five year period as sufficient for a couple to save enough for a house in their home country. A proportion of the interviewees commonly work for longer periods (4-8 months) over multiple (4-6) years to save for buying, building or improving a family home: “ Most people…are coming here for a dream…so when the dream is finally made they stop coming…maybe because they have the house…and the money in Romania it’s enough…for eating and what is necessary for one family.

5.2.2 Conditions of work

A number of worker interviewees from across different case studies referred to the situation in their home countries, and the potential to improve this situation through seasonal work in Scotland, as a key driver for why they come. Workers often referred to their weak economies, ineffective governments and poor levels of pay:

  • It is not a good situation…In Latvia I can’t survive, here I can buy what I want….buy some food. I can send money to my parents and my sisters to help them. The difference is huge because of working here for our families.”

Working in home countries provided income for food only, and required a much greater input of hours and energy to achieve a higher level of income to spend on more than the basics. Some workers also referred to the difficulty in finding a rewarding, enjoyable job with career progression prospects in their home country without a high level of qualifications and experience. A number of workers, across different nationalities, also referred to poor working conditions in their home country relative to the UK and being inadequately reimbursed for hours worked: “ The pay is poor and you are not treated well and may not be paid for all the hours that you worked.” In contrast workers identified the system of seasonal work in Scotland as fair and flexible with farmers and managers generally considered respectful of workers.

5.2.3 Familiarity, farm reputations and recommendations

Returnee workers across multiple case studies, and in particular on smaller (veg and mixed) farms, referred to the importance of familiarity with the farm and their seasonal working pattern. In these cases their employer was often referred to as a ‘good person’, with whom they had an established relationship, evidencing the building of mutual trust. Established returnee workers commonly referred to the perceived stress linked with ‘starting over’ on a new farm or in a new country and having to learn a new language and new systems and establish new relationships. The familiarity of returning year on year to the same farm was linked to lower stress and the comfort of knowing what to expect. As one returnee stated: I know the farm, I would not try another country, I have had enough staying away…the only country now would be Scotland or Romania, it is too late now to go and try another country.”

Returnee workers (particularly on small-medium farms) also referred to the friendships and connections made during their time working as a significant motivation for their return to a farm year-on-year. As one stated: “ it is feeling like home, or like family here, because I know the people I work with….every new beginning is difficult, so it is better to come back to what you know”. Many new workers refer to a positive recommendation from a family member or friend as a motivation for coming to work on a particular farm or to Scotland generally. This included workers in the processing group, many of whom had followed family members to Scotland for work. Farms were often referred to as having ‘good reputations’, and certain farms were known as having good rates of pay and accommodation standards, and fair, friendly supervisors.

5.2.4 Other factors

Corroborating findings reported in the literature, a number of additional factors were referred to in relation to worker motivations for coming to Scotland, including: the potential for improving English language abilities; experiencing Scottish culture, and; the reputation of Scotland as a ‘good country’. A number of younger workers also referred to the opportunity to work in Scotland as giving them a ‘life experience’ and a possible pathway into a new country and new opportunities in the future. Workers employed by labour providers also commented on the potential for these employers to provide work over a long winter season (work continuity), with opportunities for other work (e.g. berry farms) during the summer months. Some of these factors (among others) were also discussed in greater depth in relation to perceived positives and negatives of working in Scotland.

5.3 Worker perspectives on negative aspects of seasonal farm work

The biggest challenge faced by most worker survey respondents whilst working in Scotland related to having to overcome missing their friends and families – this affected three quarters of the respondents (see Figure 23). Language barriers were reported as regularly being a challenge for 19% of respondents with a further 34% having problems some of the time (meaning over half the respondents experienced language barriers). High workload / fatigue were also a challenge for about half the respondents with a fifth stating it was a regular challenge they faced. Other challenges reported by a minority of workers related to accommodation costs, insufficient free time, distance from urban centres and discrimination. Whilst over a quarter of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination or abuse there was very limited evidence of this negative experience amongst the case study interviewees (this may be due to selection bias of interviewees or workers feeling less inhibited when completing the anonymous survey in their own time). In these case study interviews any examples of discrimination provided related to off-farm situations.

Figure 23: Challenges faced by seasonal migrant survey respondents to working in Scotland

Figure 23: Challenges faced by seasonal migrant survey respondents to working in Scotland

Across all case studies workers identified relatively few negative aspects of seasonal farm work (with some failing to identify any), with workers more frequently identifying positive aspects. The main negative aspects identified by workers are outlined in order of mention below, with summarised responses to this question shown as a word cloud in Figure 24.

Figure 24: Summary of worker statements relating to challenges of seasonal agricultural work in Scotland

Figure 24: Summary of worker statements relating to challenges of seasonal agricultural work in Scotland

i) Scottish weather conditions: The weather was the most frequently-mentioned negative aspect, with this relating to colder temperatures from autumn onwards and rain throughout the year. Poor weather conditions were associated with discomfort and the need to wear waterproofs for long periods. Additionally, in some cases, weather had the potential to affect growth rates thereby impacting the availability of working hours at specific times. As one Bulgarian worker stated: “ good weather is good fruits and you have a lot of job, all day rain means fruits is not ready.” Disrupted scheduling and limited hours was not reported as a common occurrence across the case studies, although some fruit farms had experienced some crops being ready for harvest earlier than planned, resulting in an initial shortfall in worker availability early in the season. Some workers also commented on their accommodation as being cold late in the year when temperatures dropped. Nevertheless, a number of workers also commented on Scottish temperatures suiting picking, with higher temperatures (particularly in tunnels) causing discomfort for pickers. Some workers also commented that they had become accustomed to the Scottish climate and sometimes found it too warm when they returned home.

ii) Workers missing their families: While workers often commented on the weather with humour, the most fundamental challenge referred to across case studies was the time workers spent apart from their families. This was particularly the case when workers left young children behind with their partners or relatives. Some workers noted that time away was difficult regardless of whether they had children, and discussed the potential for missing their relatives and siblings ‘growing up’ as they repeatedly undertook long seasons of work . Some workers also discussed how their departure increased pressure on those left behind to look after children and/or older family members in their absence (and in some cases work at the same time).Despite this, some workers suggested that leaving home became easier after the first season of work, once a pattern was established. Additionally, seasonal work allowed the workers to spend blocks of quality time (often 1-2 months) with their families and generate sufficient savings to improve their overall quality of life. Workers more permanently established in Scotland (from the labour providers and processor group case study) also identified the distance from family as a burden or “ the price you pay to live here”. Longer term migrants recognised that living in Scotland resulted in them becoming more disconnected from the family support system. As one long-term migrant stated:

You feel a bit less connected and the support system is not here, because your family are not here…I am starting to think about all the things I am missing, or do I want to stay here or should I go somewhere else…I went home a couple of weeks ago just to see my niece, because I don’t know when I am going to see them and its hard and they are growing up”.

iii) Cultural differences and language barriers: A minority of workers also identified cultural aspects such as experiencing cultural differences and changes as challenging. This was related most specifically to language and the difficulty for some workers to learn English and settle for the season in a new country. An additional point of difference referred to by some workers was the difference in foods, with some workers critical of the emphasis on processed and take away foods and the availability of certain foods in supermarkets between the UK and their home countries.

iv) Acquiring new skills and new work patterns: A minority of workers also referred to the difficulty of adjusting to a new farm during their first season and increasing their picking speed sufficiently (to generate higher income). The initial physical difficulty of the work combined with living in temporary accommodation was commented on as challenging by a small minority, although these workers recognised that as you gain experience over time the working pattern became easier. A small number also commented on occasional difficulties of working with different groups and different nationalities, with a certain amount of worker turnover occurring across the season. This was seen as necessitating experienced supervisors to facilitate the building and running of effective teams, as one experienced supervisor on a large fruit farm commented: “some farmers do not realise the importance of supervisors that speak multiple languages and understand different nationalities and support the workers and organise mixed teams that work well together.”

v) Brexit and the strength of the pound: Within the discussion around challenges some workers also referred to the uncertainty around Brexit in relation to returning to the UK for seasonal work in the future and the effect of Brexit on the value of the pound (see next section for further detail). A small number of workers also expressed concern around a perceived decreasing likelihood that they would be able to find more permanent work in Scotland in the future, negating the possibility that seasonal work could act as a pathway to more permanent employment in Scotland.

5.4 Worker perspectives on positive aspects of seasonal farm work

Worker survey respondents were asked to rank a number of factors as to the most beneficial or positive aspects of working seasonally in Scottish agriculture (Figure 25). Unsurprisingly, the main positive aspects related to earnings potential in Scotland and the ability to send money home to their family. For some the primary benefit has been to improve their English language with opportunities to gain permanent employment in Scotland and the UK also important, particularly as secondary benefits.

Figure 25: Beneficial / positive aspects of working in Scotland reported by worker survey respondents

Figure 25: Beneficial / positive aspects of working in Scotland reported by worker survey respondents

Across all case studies, workers identified positive aspects of seasonal farm work. The key positive aspects referred to by workers during interviews are outlined below, with summarised responses to this question shown as a word cloud in Figure 26.

Figure 26: Summarised worker statements on positive aspects of seasonal agricultural work in Scotland

Figure 26: Summarised worker statements on positive aspects of seasonal agricultural work in Scotland

i) Earnings potential and an enhanced quality of life: Reflecting the discussions relating to motivations, workers across all case studies identified the potential for generating a good income and saving the bulk of this as a key positive aspect. This was viewed as enhancing the quality of life of workers and their families and enabling workers to acquire their own home in their home country. Scotland was often referred to as one of the best places for seasonal farm work in Europe due to a long season and the availability of consistent hours combined with a competitive hourly rate and the reasonably low costs of living due to the low-cost accommodation. Hourly rates in some EU countries (e.g. Germany, Scandinavian countries) were seen as equal or better than in the UK; however, seasons were recognised as shorter and cost of living was sometimes higher. Other EU countries were sometimes criticised for lower wages and poorer quality working conditions and accommodation.

ii) Respectful employers and good farm-worker relationships: Workers from across the case studies identified examples of receiving respectful treatment and support from their employers. This was particularly emphasised by workers on smaller and medium sized farms (but also evident in some comments from workers from larger farms). As one Latvian workers from a smaller farm stated: “They are not looking at us like we are foreigners…we can talk with them about our problems and they will always listen and try to help….maybe bank accounts opening, if somebody needs the hospital or dentist he brings us.”

Many workers identified this positivity and worker treatment as one of the biggest positives of working on farms in Scotland: “ The best thing about this farm is that…the attitude of the owners and supervisors is good, a positive attitude and we are treated well.’” Some workers contrasted this with working conditions in their home country, which were sometimes referred to as unfair, with pay and conditions reflecting a greater emphasis on worker welfare in Scotland. “ At home your bosses don’t care about you, you are less than an employee…you are there for them, here there is some sort of understanding that without us our bosses do not make any money.” Workers referred to “being treated like a person and not a number” on Scottish farms, with farmers respectful of workers concerns. Despite a slightly higher number of comments on earnings, these respect-related aspects were often heavily emphasised by workers, as one worker on a large fruit farm stated in relation to employer attitudes: “ Sometimes this is more important than money because I have been on farms where you can make a lot of money but they treat you only like a number….This is a big farm but the way they treat the people, they are much closer to the people and you can go and talk to the boss not like on other big farms, and they know my name!”

iii) Friendly working environments: Workers from across all case studies referred to Scottish farms as friendly, welcoming working environments. Younger workers in particular commented on the potential for meeting new people from different countries and making new friends, some of whom stayed in touch after leaving Scotland. Scottish people were generally referred to very positively, as friendly, helpful and warm. As one (now permanent) worker from Estonia commented: “the people are a big influence, I have never felt out of place or not welcomed or on my own, your friends that you make here they kind of become your family because you don’t really have family here”. A minority of workers with experience in England also referred to Scotland as being more welcoming of foreign workers than parts of England. Scotland as a country was also referred to as a ‘ good country’ with a good system for rewarding workers and providing support (e.g. health care).

iv) Low work related stress: Some workers contrasted the level of work related stress in their seasonal work (which they saw as low) with the stress associated with working in their own country (seen as high). Workers referred to the availability of free time and a positive working environment on the farms. As one worker on a vegetable farm stated: “ In our countries it is more stressful…a main difference…when I first came last year (I thought) why is everybody smiling? Two weeks later I knew, because everybody is happy….it’s not like this (in our home countries).” Workers referred to the importance of good, positive supervision and clear instruction and working in happy teams that worked well together, which were commonly referred to as attributes of their farms. Some workers also noted how seasonal farm work provided them with an opportunity to distance themselves from their financial worries and the stresses of their day-to-day lives: “’’Y ou don’t need to think about problems, your mind is free…the farm…it’s like a family. We enjoy the free time…we come back (home) and we don’t have time for us, we have other stuff we need to do, here we are thinking about just me, what I want to do…I am worried about going home” (Female worker on a smaller vegetable farm).

v) New experiences, skills and languages: Workers from across case studies referred to the opportunities seasonal farm work provided for improving their English and gaining experience of different cultures (including Scottish but also the languages and cultures of the other foreign workers present on farms). Some workers had learned other languages (e.g. Romanian/Bulgarian) through establishing long term friendships with workers from other countries. Some workers noted how improving their English had led to improved work opportunities (such as supervisory roles) due to their enhanced communication skills. Longer term permanent workers also noted how improving their English had “ opened up doors” to higher paid employment and commented on the life experience, confidence and independence they had gained from living in and adapting to life in a different country.
Some workers also referred to the wider skillsets they had gained through seasonal farm work in Scotland, including learning how to grow and tend different crops (with some workers hoping to establish their own farms in their home countries) and supervise workers, with these skills having increased their employability, thereby guaranteeing them work in the future. As one Bulgarian worker from a mixed farm stated: “I learned everything here, had never seen a farm beforethe skills and experience I have I gained here.…my first job was planting Broccoli on a machine and after that [the farmer] gave me the chance to try as a tractor driver…he trained me step by step with a tractor, trailer, forklift…eventually I got all the licence categories on my licence…each year when I went home I did the test, this has given me many skills.”

vi) Job security and future potential: Workers recognised how gaining farm related skills and experience had allowed them to return year-on-year in a relatively stable seasonal employment arrangement. The majority of supervisors interviewed that gained their experience in Scotland ‘moved up the ladder’ as a result of their improved language and farm experience. The importance of the potential for progression and improved earnings and responsibility were particularly emphasised by the long term permanent workers, who collectively recognised that working hard and gaining experience presented opportunities for progressing to more permanent work arrangements and better pay.

5.5 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives on worker motivations

Some farmer/stakeholder interviewees chose not to discuss worker motivations, with some suggesting workers would be better placed to discuss their motivations. Those that did identified earnings potential (facilitated by wage differentials and exchange rates) and established farm-worker relationships as key factors – closely aligning with worker perspectives. Farmers and recruitment agencies also recounted numerous examples of workers earning towards specific long-term goals and investing in opportunities in their home country (e.g. a house, farm, or paying for their degree), usually to provide an enhanced quality of life for their dependents. This was seen as resulting in highly motivated workers, who had travelled specifically to work and had often been working in their home country prior to leaving.

Some farmers and recruitment agencies also confirmed that a minority of workers viewed seasonal work as a gateway to longer-term permanent employment or higher earnings opportunities in the UK. Some farmers noted motivations varied between nationalities, with migrants from newer member states (Bulgaria/Romania) heavily focused on working and earning as much as possible to support their families, while younger Polish workers often showed an interest in cultural experiences and were saving for a holiday, laptop or additional spending money – this resulted in farmers often being most interested in Bulgarians and Romanians. Reflecting workers views, farmers also recognised the importance of having a positive reputation and ensuring the availability of a diverse workload, with husbandry techniques to reduce worker fatigue (e.g. raised table-top picking opportunities) for attracting workers.


Back to top