Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

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

6 The working and living conditions of workers

Section Summary:

The bulk of activity consisted of harvesting, although workers (particularly longer season workers) were involved in a range of activities, including packaging and husbandry; workers showed a preference for a diversity of activities. Inductions, worker training and mixed experience teams were viewed as important for gaining experience and increasing earnings.

The average number of hours worked per week (40-48) and the pay range for hourly rates (£7.50-10.50) were reasonably consistent across farms, with upper pay rates higher on some larger farms depending on experience. Workers were generally satisfied with working conditions; in some cases workers would prefer to work longer and more consistent hours.

The majority of workers stayed in on-site low cost (£40-60 a week) shared accommodation (caravans), which allowed them to save most of their earnings. Transport arrangements were important and many farms had cars available for workers, with larger farms using buses for worker transport and day trips.

As pay is reasonably consistent, other factors (e.g. accommodation costs/quality, Wi-Fi provision) may become more important to workers in the future in determining where they go to work.

Farm businesses were generally content with paying the minimum wage, and if workers failed to achieve that through piece-rate then they were not offered overtime and were often the first workers to be shed as the season winds down. In tight labour seasons, all workers are considered important and the perception was that some poorer workers were being carried but the farms could not afford to get rid of them.

Some farm businesses raised concerns that Scottish producers were at a disadvantage due to the continuation of the SAWB. Additional concerns related to temporary workers holiday pay entitlement and pension contributions (which were seen by many as counterintuitive and expensive for workers that would never see any pension benefit).

6.1 Background literature

Rogaly (2008) outlined how changing relationships between corporate retailers and agriculture/horticulture firms in the UK have impacted the use of migrant labour in agricultural production over the past 30 years. Specifically, the former’s emphasis on production volume, product quality, and low margins (for growers) has led to a substantial intensification of horticultural production. To meet these increased demands, growers have increasingly sought workers who are “ reliable, flexible and compliant”, which are perceived as being traits “ more likely to be found in foreign workers”.

This trend coincided with shifts in how gangmasters operate. The establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority ( GLA) in 2006 significantly increased regulations to ensure gangmasters “ were not cutting corners, for example on wage payments or non-wage benefits such as holiday pay, nor charging excess fees for transport, or exorbitant rents on accommodation” (Rogaly, 2008). This shifted the model from small gangs with a leader and ‘core members’ to larger ones with multiple customers and often absentee gangmasters. The fact that gangmasters are more likely to provide accommodation, a source of profit and a means of labour control means they are “ more likely to take advantage of the specific vulnerabilities of migrant workers” (Rogaly, 2008).

Production intensification also has serious ramifications for wages. Specifically, the increased reliance on migrant workers has coincided with widespread introduction of ‘piece rates’. Whilst minimum wages are strictly regulated, piece rates are much more lenient because there is no specification of rates for crop, task, season, etc. Implementing these rates thus offers significant scope to undercut the minimum wage (Gidwani, 2001). Rogaly (2008) found evidence of increased working speeds and enhanced labour control due to piece rates replacing time rates (where pay is based solely on hours worked), as well as a marked drop in the rates themselves due to reduced grower margins. Gangmasters reported that price per unit of output “ declined in cash terms by two-sevenths between 1999 and 2004”, and that “ piece rates had declined by 15% since 1998” (Rogaly, 2008).

Indeed, the increasingly stringent criteria to meet minimum earnings targets has led to some migrants earning less than the minimum wage to which they are entitled, and there has been some evidence of this in Scotland ( TUC, 2008). Further, previous research has suggested that migrant workers were known to be living in poverty in Scottish rural areas, and this situation may be particularly prevalent in the agricultural sector ( EKOS, 2009). This evidence is particularly worth considering in light of in light of the SAWB’s requirement that all workers in the agricultural sector, including those from outside the UK, must be paid the National Living Wage of £7.50 per hour from April 2017 (Scottish Government, 2017).

6.2 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives on conditions of work

The farm business survey respondents reported that 60% of their seasonal migrant labour was utilised in harvesting, with 12% used for processing and packaging and a further 12% used for crop husbandry. Sixteen per cent of the total directly employed seasonal migrant labour was used for planting and maintenance activities on these farms. These proportions vary significantly between farm businesses, depending on the key products grown, as represented by the following explanations from farmers as to their seasonal labour demands:

  • In winter months (January, February) there is just a little work like cleaning up tunnels, preparing for planting. In March and April there is a bit more work to do like first planting and some husbandry jobs. End of April / beginning of May is the period for time consuming jobs - bringing flowers down on table top strawberries. End of May to July is the peak of the season when we have all recruited workers on the farm. Then the season goes quiet in August. September that is the time for lifting potatoes. And in October there is just few people left doing some husbandry and maintenance jobs.”
  • We employ seasonal migrant workers to pick our daffodils from about March to May and our bulbs from about June to August but the seasons are all weather dependent. In our bulb season we also use migrant workers in our shed to dress and pack the bulbs.”
  • Our principal crop (for labour requirement) is broccoli. We plant from March until July and harvest/pack from mid-June until mid-November. The work is dictated by the weather and by customer demand. We use maintenance work and grading of other crops (potatoes and onions) as "fillers" to maintain hours worked for seasonal staff when the weather causes gaps in harvesting.
  • Low numbers are required for potato and broccoli planting but activity by those workers is intense. Other work during growing season includes weeding and irrigation, etc. The main requirement is for broccoli harvest and processing which is all done by hand.”
  • Potato harvest occurs in a six week period during September/October but grading working varies throughout the year depending on when potatoes are being marketed.”

Figure 27: Seasonal migrant labour use by task on business respondent farms

Figure 27: Seasonal migrant labour use by task on business respondent farms

Harvesting constituted the primary activity for the majority of workers on case study farms, with peaks in production generally coinciding with peaks in worker numbers. Packaging also represented a key activity on some farms, depending on the products and system of working. Nevertheless, the case study farms utilised seasonal workers across a wide range of activities, particularly outside of the peak harvest periods, including erecting poly tunnels, planting, pruning and weeding. Labour providers commonly placed workers on potato farms working on a range of activities (particularly grading), with those working for the food processing and supply group commonly working in packaging and processing as well as in support roles (e.g. administration).

The farm business survey respondents reported an average working week of eight hours per day for five and a half days for their seasonal migrant workforce. The majority of businesses had an entry level wage rate of £7.50 per hour but workers could earn up to £19 per hour, especially on the larger farms where there was a wage premium for experience (supervisory, unsocial hours, experienced piece rate workers). About half of the businesses reported that they restricted working hours of their workers to minimise overtime payments:

  • “No more than 12 hrs per day. Max 6 days per week offer of work.”
  • “I don't feel it is necessary to work them overtime unless we are behind due to weather or other unforeseen issues and so it is reviewed on a daily basis.”
  • “We work shift patterns to try and avoid overtime.”
  • “Must work no more than 39 hours except in exceptional circumstances.”
  • “Try and keep them to 8 hrs per day and no more than 48hrs in a week.”

However for some businesses the practice of restricting overtime appeared counterintuitive: “Where we used to, we cannot afford to have unproductive people sitting in their caravans not working” or overtime is based on worker ability:

  • Only very good pickers are allowed to have overtime. Supervisors get more overtime”
  • “Majority of work is paid at piece rate, and any employee not earning the minimum wage on piece work isn't offered overtime.”

Whilst a small number of farm businesses actively commented that they felt that seasonal migrant workers should be entitled to the same conditions as UK workers there were a number of concerns relating to the continuation of the SAWB, pension contributions, holiday pay, minimum wages, etc. The type of sentiment provided included:

  • Scottish growers are at a competitive disadvantage if selling within the wider U.K supply chain as our competitors in England and Wales do not have an Agricultural Wages Board to contend with, which means our labour rates and consequently our growing costs are not competitive. The impact of this is very expensive for Scottish businesses.”
  • I think it is overly generous to pay holiday pay to a worker that works less than two months. The pickers are shocked that they get holiday pay and many feel that they are on a working holiday.”
  • Increasing living wage rate is making it more difficult for piece work related activities. The minimum hourly rate is making productivity fall as migrant workers are now guaranteed money regardless of poor work output. Cost of production increasing without an associated increase in produce selling price.”
  • The pension provision for migrant workers is difficult. None of them want it as they don’t wish to contribute themselves. They would rather send as much money home to their families as they can.”
  • As wages are 25% of our costs we are concerned about rises in wage costs. Rises in hourly rates have a much larger cost when National Insurance, pensions, holiday pay and overtime are factored in.”
  • Minimum wage, holiday pay, working time directive, pensions - rules, rules and more rules - makes the job of employing people unattractive especially when dealing with crops where margins are tight.”
  • Automatic enrolment in the state pension for workers who do not want to participate creates a meaningless amount of work and hassle.”

Workers on case study farms were commonly employed on zero hours contracts, with most working a 40-48 hour week (over 5-6 days); with additional hours and overtime pay reasonably common during busy periods (see Table 11 for a summary). Workers were most commonly paid minimum wage, with many receiving elevated hourly rates due to picking bonuses/piece rates and in the case of supervisors and workers with specialist skills (e.g. machinery drivers). Rates of pay were reasonably consistent (influenced by the SAWB), with the majority earning the minimum hourly wage (£7.50), with some workers earning more (£7.50-£10.50) due to higher picking rates or supervisory roles, with upper pay rates higher on some larger farms.

Piece rates were reasonably common on case study farms, with the wages of workers who picked insufficient amounts to reach the minimum wage equivalent being raised to the minimum wage to ensure legal compliance. Piece rates were not used universally, with vegetable farms in particular noting that piece rates can result in a drop in quality for more skilled tasks; adverse weather conditions were also noted as potentially impacting workers incomes substantially if based on a piece rate. Piece rates were commonly set based on daily/weekly picking averages (average weight or number of trays picked per hour), with workers picking above these rates receiving an hourly bonus, thereby providing high efficiency workers the opportunity to increase their hourly rate.

While overtime pay was a feature on most case study farms during peak periods, it was common for farms to avoid employing workers beyond the limit over which overtime must legally be paid (currently 48 hours) where feasible. Farms facilitated this to an extent by employing sufficient numbers of workers and alternating worker teams to avoid high levels of overtime pay – as this was generally seen as unaffordable. Where workers were employed on an overtime basis some farms noted these hours would normally be given to their higher efficiency workers. Notably, farmers commonly perceived the shift in the regulation on overtime (with the requirement for overtime pay switching from 39 to 48 hours in 2017) as crucial to their margins in 2017.

Planting and harvesting was commonly staggered carefully to provide a consistent working pattern and minimise very high workload periods and periods where insufficient hours were available to workers. In some cases farms were planting specific additional crops (e.g. late cherries and blueberries) to extend their working season and ‘fill gaps’ to ensure a consistent workload across a long enough period to satisfy worker demand for hours and increase overall farm efficiency. As the seasonal workload decreased towards the end of the season, on most case study farms (and particularly fruit farms) workers picking at lower efficiencies were often laid off first, or in some cases left themselves during the season due to their lower hourly rates.

Table 11: Conditions of work on case study

Average Hours Pay Range (per hour) Accommodation & Transport
Fife Veg 8hrs per day over 6 days (48hrs), with some overtime Basic rate: £7.50 Avg. Upper rate: £10.75 Maximum rate: £12.00 Majority in mobile homes on-site; Cars provided for workers (and fuel)
Tayside Mixed 8hrs per day over 5-6 days (40-48hrs), with some overtime Basic rate: £7.50 Upper rate (Avg.): £10.50 Maximum: £12.50 Majority in mobile homes on-site (small % off site accommodation); Cars provided, farm-owned buses used at peak times
Soft fruit 8hrs per day over 6 days (40hrs-48hrs), with some overtime Basic rate: £7.50 Avg. Upper rate: £10.50 Maximum: £15.00 Majority in mobile homes on-site (small % off-site accommodation); Farm-owned buses, some car availability, workers own cars/sharing, and bikes
Labour Providers 8hrs per day over 5 days (40hrs), with some overtime £7.50-£8.70; specialist skills, drivers etc. Majority in own housing, work normally within a 50 mile radius ; Own cars (costs)

Reflecting perspectives provided in the worker survey, case study farmers frequently recognised the importance of worker welfare and developing positive working relationships, with positive treatment of workers seen as being rewarded by worker loyalty in the longer term. Recruitment agencies were also seen as playing a role in worker welfare, as farms were frequently visited and inspected by agencies to assess working and living conditions prior to the arrival of workers. Organised social events and well managed living areas and work-teams were also noted as key to the development of a positive working environment and flexible, responsive staff teams.

6.3 Worker perspectives on tasks, pay and conditions

73% of the worker respondents to the survey reported that they had worked directly for a farm business in 2017, with 22% reporting that they had worked for a labour provider and 22% a food processor. The majority of worker respondents (71%) had worked in the fruit sector during 2017, with 39% having worked in the vegetable sector, 36% in potatoes and 7% in the dairy sector. Figure 28 shows how nearly two thirds of the worker respondents reported that they had been engaged in harvesting activities in 2017, with 37% in planting or maintenance activities and 34% in crop husbandry or processing activities and 28% in grading activities. This labour profile perhaps reveals some of the biases towards a more mature, longer term migrant worker profile.

Figure 28: Day-today activities undertaken by seasonal migrant survey respondents

Figure 28: Day-today activities undertaken by seasonal migrant survey respondents

Workers in the case studies often expressed a degree of satisfaction with their work and in broad terms viewed their work environments and treatment by their employers and supervisors very positively. In particular, workers frequently referred to their employers as fair (often contrasting this with worker treatment in their home countries). Workers were generally satisfied with their working activities, although some referred to the importance of some diversity in their workload, including working across different crops, inside and outside of polytunnels and moving from ground based strawberry picking to picking from taller plants (e.g. blueberries) or table top strawberry plants. Workers generally raised few complaints (see Section 5.3 on negative aspects), with the exception of starting early on cold mornings and long periods of ground-based picking.

Ensuring new workers were appropriately inducted to the farms and accommodation, trained in appropriate skills and placed in teams which included experienced workers from whom they can learn, was highlighted as critical to ensuring workers felt motivated to do the work.

A fifth of the worker survey respondents reported that they regularly worked more than 50 hours per week, with 35% working between 40 and 50 hours and a third working between 30 and 40 hours. This generally reflects the position explained by the farm businesses although there are higher than expected proportion working more than 50 hours (this could again be bias in the sample towards older, more experienced workers who may be picking up overtime).

Figure 29: Average hours worked per week reported by worker survey respondents

Figure 29: Average hours worked per week reported by worker survey respondents

Interviewed workers were generally content with both their hours and rates of pay, with some commenting specifically on how piece rates motivated them to work and increased their overall savings across the season. Some workers commented that they would prefer to work longer and more consistent hours, with a minority (in one case study) referring to hours having been restricted due to weather problems or small orders, with workers often used to working longer hours in their home countries: “ We would like more hours all the time…if I was working in Romania I would be working 12 hours per day…but they might say today you must stay 2-3 hours more but…without paying you extra…coming here, working 6hrs, the day was nothing, three times more money working at 50%”.

Some returnee workers commented during the case study interviews on the changes in the regulations around overtime (with the requirement from overtime pay switching from 39 to 48 hours in 2017) which they felt had reduced the amount of overtime potential; many interviewed workers still received overtime pay during very busy periods and some viewed a longer working week positively. Some workers expressed a desire to obtain a more secure, all year round job and those on permanent all year round contracts (in the food processing group) often commented on their job security as a key benefit, although those in more permanent roles were at times more critical of their rate of pay than seasonal workers. Those working for labour providers and living on a more permanent basis in the UK also commented on the difficulty of ensuring regular work when they did not have a permanent contract. Workers generally viewed their leave allowance as generous, with multi-season workers on some farms working three months on and then one month in their own country before returning, which they viewed as essential to maintaining family relationships.

In Focus Box 4 Ivelin – vegetable and potato worker experience

Ivelin has worked on this farm for two years; prior to this he worked on a carrot farm in Scotland and worked in construction in Bulgaria. Ivelin is studying for a degree in engineering in Bulgaria and will go into third year when he finishes work for the 2017 summer. He comes back to work on the farm because “here you don’t have a lot of free time to spend your money, usually if I am in Bulgaria when I finish work there are my friends, my family, let’s go out, let’s go out, here I don’t have time so I save more money”. There are opportunities to earn money in Bulgaria but he likes it in Scotland.

“In our countries it is more stressful than here, when I first came last year (I thought) why is everybody smiling? And after that, maybe two weeks later I knew, because everybody is happy, they look happy….it’s not like this (in our home countries). You are working all the time, probably working for a big company, you buy a house and this company shuts down, it’s not happening every day but it could happen and you are aware of that”. Ivelin enjoys the work however says that whilst it is not easy it is easier and he works less hours than he did in construction.

He lives in a house on the farm that he shares with other workers; it has a good internet connection so he can keep in touch with his friends and family in Bulgaria. Being away from family and friends is one of the most difficult things he faces while in Scotland. Ivelin, like many others, sends money back home to his family. In his spare time, Ivelin goes to Dundee to shop with others working on the farm.

Ivelin would like to come back to work in Scotland in 2018, however he is aware that the money he earns at the moment is less than last year due to the exchange rate. In the future he would like to stay longer than six months, so he is looking for other types of work. He would like a permanent job in Scotland most likely as an engineer. He will complete his degree in two years.

6.4 Accommodation and transport

6.4.1 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives

The farm business survey respondents reported that they provided accommodation (for a fee) for over 6,500 seasonal migrant workers (80% of the respondents’ workforce) in 2017. The majority of this was on large scale soft fruit farm businesses. Half of the respondents provided accommodation for all of their workers and only 14% did not provide any accommodation (smaller scale businesses with lower labour requirements). The rationale for providing accommodation was convenience for workers (on-site with no transportation requirements). Caravans accounted for about 80% of this provision, as it was a low cost option for workers (who demand accommodation local to farms) and helps avoid Houses in Multiple Occupancy regulations that govern larger housing units.

The majority of workers on case study farms lived in on-site accommodation (predominantly mobile homes and caravans) generally arranged before their arrival, with workers commonly paying a returnable safety deposit (e.g. £50) and weekly fee of £40-60 to cover the on-going costs of maintaining accommodation (see Table 11). In contrast, those working for labour providers and the processing group were generally living in private (off-site) rented accommodation. On some farms a small minority of workers also used off-site private rented accommodation.

A number of farm case studies recognised an increasing range of regulatory requirements relating to accommodation (e.g. electrical and gas testing requirements, fire safety) and increasing costs for maintenance and updating. However, increasing accommodation charges to counteract rising costs was acknowledged as potentially counter-productive in terms of discouraging workers. Notably, recruitment agencies (and some farms) emphasised the importance of maintaining high standards and sufficient heating in accommodation on Scottish farms to ensure strong farm reputations and to engender a strong sense of respect for workers and attract workers in an increasingly competitive labour market. Heating in the autumn/winter months was a key challenge in this respect, with one large fruit farm having established a biomass district heat network to provide heat and hot water to all their mobile homes.

As farms were commonly some distance from urban centres, transport for workers is important, particularly for food shopping and on days off. Many farms had a number of cars available for workers (some with designated, insured drivers) to use when required (see Table 11), with particularly good access to cars on small and medium sized farms, with larger farms making greater use of farm-owned buses to transport workers to the supermarket at specific times. Farms also commonly organised trips to tourist attractions at specific times during the season. Vehicle ownership was more common among long term returnees, some of whom drive to Scotland from their home country at the start of the season. Workers on some sites also make use of online-ordering and supermarket delivery services to minimise travel costs. One large farm (due the closeness of a town) also made bicycles available to workers during their season for a small charge (£40 for the season, with £20 returned on departure). Those working for labour providers and the processing group commonly owned their own car and/or lift shared with fellow workers to keep travel costs down.

6.4.2 Worker perspectives

Nearly half of the respondents of the worker survey reported that they lived in caravans on farms (47%) with 14% living in on-farm housing and 29% in private rented accommodation (reflecting the respondent profile – more experienced, older and working with labour providers). Sixty percent of the workers reported that they had accommodation arranged before arriving in Scotland with 59% having it pre-arranged by the farmer, with the remainder being arranged by themselves (14%), friends or family (14%) or recruitment agencies (14%). For those that arrived in Scotland without accommodation arranged most relied on farm businesses to arrange their accommodation (48%) or sorted it out themselves (34%). Three quarters of the survey worker respondents reported that they were satisfied with their accommodation provision (meaning one in four thought it could be better).

Interviewed workers were generally very satisfied with their accommodation and viewed the availability of low-cost accommodation as critical to ensuring they made sufficient savings during their period of seasonal work. Farms commonly facilitated workers sharing with their partners, family members and friends, with two to six workers sharing a caravan depending on the time of the year and size of the accommodation. Some workers referred to caravans as cold during the autumn and winter months, although workers recognised accommodation was generally well maintained and heated. A preference was shown for accommodation with inbuilt showers and kitchens as opposed to shared site facilities. The availability of good quality internet access (a common feature on case study farms) was often referred to as important as it facilitated regular communication with family members. Shared games and meeting areas were also common on case study farms where workers often socialised at the end of the day and at weekends. Car availability was generally seen very positively as it gave workers a level of freedom and allowed them to see parts of rural Scotland and the cities (e.g. Edinburgh) during their time in Scotland, with workers on some farms not required to pay for fuel for short journeys.


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