Farm workers in Scottish agriculture: case studies

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

7 Family, community and integration

Section Summary:

Workers often travelled with friends and family members. Workers on all farm types referred to the existence of a support network and a ‘farm family’, particularly on smaller farms. Farmers and supervisors were seen as playing a role in creating a supportive environment;

Workers often left young families behind and regular communication with home was a major feature of seasonal work; those with family at home were heavily motivated and focused on providing a better life for their families through seasonal work;

Seasonal workers did not generally feel they were integrated with Scottish society due to their limited time in the country, the reality of being accommodated on-farm and their focus on work;

Although more than a quarter of workers reported that they had experienced discrimination the feedback from the case study workers interviewed suggested that this was mostly in off-farm environments with very few incidents of on-farm issues reported. It was generally commented that Scotland was perceived as being more welcoming to foreign workers than parts of England.

The presence of seasonal migrant workers was positive for local economies as they spend a proportion of their wages in local shops and pubs. There is anecdotal evidence of some workers playing important roles in local sports teams and churches.

7.1 Background literature

In addition to reduced earnings resulting from a weakening of Sterling, migrant workers in rural Scotland face other challenges. These include language and communication barriers, poor access to services (with diverse needs and working hours creating particular difficulties), social isolation and limited accommodation options (often temporary, seasonal and tied to their job) (de Lima 2006, 2008). All these factors make the migrant worker population particularly at risk of social exclusion.

Research undertaken in Fife and the Highlands identified specific barriers to employment including inadequate language support, lack of appropriate childcare and instances of discrimination, prejudice and racism (de Lima, 2006; 2008; de Lima, et al., 2005a; 2005b; 2007; Fife Partnership, 2007; Jentsch, et al., 2007; de Lima and Wright, 2009). Factors such as disability, gender and ethnicity and remote living conditions further amplified the impacts of poverty in different ways and for different groups ( EKOS, 2009). Worker communities and wider support mechanisms therefore represent important factors for tackling many of the challenges migrant workers face.

7.2 Worker perspectives

7.2.1 On-farm communities

The majority of the case study workers interviewed had travelled with friends or family members including couples working together, parents with their older children, wider family groups and groups of friends. These groups were common across the case study farms, resulting in the creation of multiple family units and a strong sense of ‘family’ on the case study farms – with this being referred to most frequently by workers on small and medium sized farms. As one Romanian worker who worked with her partner stated: “ This farm is a second home for us, it is like a family here…we feel very welcome, because we come here for 10-11 months and go home for 1-2 months and then we come back. We like this farm…we have friends here and know the people.”

These on-farm communities provided crucial support for workers who often referred to missing home and family, and explained how these on-site worker networks “ made being away ok”. In some cases (on smaller farms in particular) the farmer’s family also played an important supporting role in this on-farm community. As one Polish worker on a vegetable farm stated: “ We have a good farmer which makes a difference for lots of things, he is just a good person, sometimes when people go that have been here a long time he is upset and his wife is nearly crying, so it’s like a little family”. Some workers also referred to developing strong new friendships with other workers and in some cases learning new languages through these friendships. Travelling with friends and family was seen as giving workers confidence to engage with new people and situations and (particularly for female workers) making the process of travelling to and working in a new country safer.

7.2.2 Staying in touch and providing for your family

As well as travelling with adult family members (and in some cases extended family), many workers also had children who remained with relatives in their home countries while they worked in Scotland. Workers with children at home participated in worker interview groups across all case studies. The importance of regularly communicating with home (and Wi-Fi availability) was therefore frequently mentioned. Workers (often couples working together) with families at home were primarily focused on earning enough to support them by sending money home, often with the aim of building a house and/or improving their family’s quality of life. As one experienced Romanian worker stated: “ Being away from them is difficult but we need to offer them a better life so we work here and send money home and so this helps us make our children’s lives better.” As one younger worker noted, working in Scotland took her away from her financial problems at home and reduced the stress linked to this, and provided a means to lessen these difficulties for her young family on her return. Separation from family was also discussed by permanent workers from the labour provider and processing group case studies, with some of these workers also sending money to family members in their home country.

In Focus Box 5 Boris, fruit farm experience

Boris first came to work on this farm in 2005, where he works as a mechanic and tractor/forklift driver. Prior to coming to Scotland he worked in bars, as a taxi driver, a car parts salesman and as a car mechanic. He first came to the UK when he was a student, when it was easier to enter the UK for work. Having never previously worked on a farm Boris has learnt many new skills including how to drive a tractor, then a tractor and trailer and a forklift.

Boris now comes to Scotland each year from February and stays until mid-November when he returns to his native Bulgaria in the quieter wintertime. Other than the skills that he has learned, he feels that the money earned is one of the positives of working in Scotland, adding that most workers come to the UK to save money for a house. Boris lives in a caravan on the farm and has his own car that he uses to take other workers to the shops at the weekend.

Boris is concerned about the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and thinks that it will be much harder for UK farmers to recruit from Bulgaria and Romania as their economies are improving whilst the pound has weakened resulting in workers earning less in real terms: “I am 33 and I came here when I was 22 years old, so this is 33% of my life really. When we came we were children, so really it’s our adult life...we have lived our adult lives here.”

7.2.3 Integration and xenophobia

This section builds on some of the findings highlighted around social integration in Scottish communities and experiences of discrimination discussed in Section 5. The majority of workers interviewed in the case studies did not feel they were regularly interacting with Scottish people (see Figure 25), beyond those that worked on the farm, and case study interviewees identifying the main reasons for this as:

(i) Limited time in the country and limited free time across their work season;

(ii) Being in shared on-site accommodation with other foreign workers, which encouraged on-site socialising;

(iii) Limited time away from the farm with the exception of food shopping trips and some day trips with other workers; and

(iv) Limited English language ability or language confidence among some workers.

Workers therefore did not generally see themselves as heavily integrated with Scottish society, although some experienced returnees working relatively long seasons were meeting Scottish people more regularly. A small number of workers also frequently met Scottish people through a specific channel; for example by attending church (with some anecdotal stories of congregations being bolstered by workers), playing basketball or football for local clubs, or interacting with locals as a machinery driver and farm mechanic. Workers from the processing group and labour providers in more permanent roles (and rented housing) were generally much more integrated, particularly those with children of school-going age, with these workers evidencing a very high level of integration. These workers: (i) had made friends with Scottish people and a wide range of other nationalities through their work; (ii) had met other people through their children; (iii) had been in Scotland longer; iv) had improved English; and (in some cases) (v) had a Scottish partner.

Having children in Scotland was seen by some as a commitment to the country, partly as they viewed the opportunities for their children as being better in the UK than in their home country. Nevertheless, the degree of integration can also vary across permanent workers, with one worker recognising that she and her husband integrated less because they were eventually planning to return to Romania. For more permanent workers, ‘time’ was seen as a critical influence on their degree of integration and likelihood of leaving. As one worker on a full-time, permanent, contract noted: “ the longer you stay for, the more commitments and ties you get - which means leaving becomes more complicated. Moving now would mean leaving all the people here too”.

Whilst it may appear that there is a lack of integration within local communities, seasonal migrant workers are impacting on local economies. Anecdotal stories of local shops becoming partially reliant on seasonal migrant workers were common. During the worker survey respondents were asked about the amount of their earnings that they spent in their local area. Figure 30 shows that 37% were spending more than 50% of their wages locally with 45% spending between a quarter and a half of their wages locally. From the farm business survey (using the number of work days, a 7 hour day and the minimum wage) it was estimated that these businesses alone were spending around £34 million on seasonal worker wages in 2017. The retention of a proportion of this in the local economy is a much overlooked consideration as to the importance of the workforce beyond the farm sector.

Figure 30: Worker respondent’s proportion of earnings spent in the local economy

Figure 30: Worker respondent’s proportion of earnings spent in the local economy

The majority of interviewed worker across all case studies did not report negative experiences (see Figure 23) with people in Scotland (i.e. discrimination and xenophobia). Nevertheless, 28% of worker survey respondents and a small minority of interviewees recounted negative experiences within the case studies. According to case study workers and discrimination usually occurred away from the farm (in urban areas), with no workers in any case study reporting negative interactions within farm environments. The most common incident (reported by four workers) related to workers being accused of ‘ taking Scottish jobs’ or told to ‘ go home’ by young people. One worker (now living permanently in Scotland) had also experienced some harassment and one Polish worker recounted a negative experience with the NHS. Additionally, some workers referred to unintentional but offensive characterisations or generalisations, as one Latvian worker stated: “Sometimes you feel like a foreigner. When I went to the hospital here with a sprained ankle the first thing the doctor asked me was are you a Polish man, so that’s kind of for me, why are they not asking where you are from, so everyone is from Poland.” Importantly, these occurrences appeared to be related to isolated incidents and throughout the interviews workers were consistently positive about Scottish people, often referring to Scotland as a welcoming country with good people. As one Polish worker noted: “ I remember when I came here, I did not speak English and I would run away when Scottish people tried to talk to me - but never ever would they laugh or say ‘Ha! She doesn’t speak English’…Scottish people are very nice and friendly.”

Based on their experiences in both countries a small number of workers (six) in different case studies contrasted their experiences in Scotland (commonly seen as welcoming) and England, which these workers referred to as less welcoming of foreign workers. Some workers related this to the higher numbers of foreign workers in some parts of England and a growing resistance to immigration in certain areas. As one experienced Romanian worker from the Fife case study commented: “people here [in Scotland] are nicer, it’s different really. The situation in Boston was not so good…there is many foreign people….we have not ever had that here…this was getting worse, it was while I was working, people making bad jokes, a lot of people, coming and talking and saying ah go home…it was not a nice place so I said no stop too much so I left.” Nevertheless, it should be noted that these incidents were recounted by a minority of workers, with no reporting of specific on-farm incidents in this study.

In Focus Box 6 Maris - food processing experience

Maris has lived and worked in Scotland for 12 years; she came to this position for a summer job and has stayed ever since. The then-poor Estonian economy pushed her to come, and she was also curious about what Scotland would be like. She feels that the Estonian economy is improving, although the minimum wage is still very low. Maris originally came to Scotland as part of a bigger group of friends and they used an agency to sort out work and accommodation. No one in the group had any experience of previously working in a fruit and vegetable processing.

Maris has lived in Scotland since 2005 and is now thinking about buying a house. Normally she goes home 1-2 times per year. She feels a bit less connected to her family and lacks a support system. Like other workers, Maris started at the bottom and gradually progressed to her current supervisor position. Maris is happy with her work and now works Monday to Friday 9-5 which is what she wants. Maris explains that that food in Scotland is the one thing that is different from Estonia: “It is a big point of difference, food, I would always go home and get certain foods but now there is a bigger variety here now so we don’t miss many things.” The best things about Scotland for Maris is the landscape especially the mountains. Also “the people are a big influence, I have never felt out of place or not welcomed or on my own”.

Maris is not sure of her long term plans: “a big question for me is probably family - because you start missing things in Estonia, like family occasions. Maybe when you are younger you don’t think about it so much.” Maris is curious about what Brexit means for her: “with Brexit I am mainly wondering what’s going to be needed, you know if you go home for a visit, what will be changing, it depends probably on how long you have been here, will it be Kettle that has to make the changes or will it be us, we are not sure how easy or hard it will be”

7.3 Farmer and stakeholder perspectives

Farmers from across the case studies confirmed the importance of on-farm worker communities, recognising their role in providing support and in creating a positive working environment for workers. Smaller and medium sized farms in particular referred to workers as being ‘part of the family’ and emphasised the importance of establishing working relationships built on trust with their workers.

Most farms recognised the importance of organising day trips to allow workers to recuperate, particularly after long intensive periods of work and to facilitate socialising and relaxing off the farm. Farmers and stakeholders also collectively recognised the importance of ‘staying in touch with family’ for workers, with Wi-Fi seen as key to this. For longer term/multi-season workers the ability to go home between 3-4 month working periods for an extended break was also viewed as critical to facilitating their return year-on-year.

Despite the high numbers of workers on some farms, farmers across the case studies were not aware of any resulting issues locally, or of concerns being raised by local communities or by workers themselves. These case study farmers also noted that (although rare) disruptive workers were usually asked to leave, to ensure any potential for anti-social behaviour was minimised.

Farmers, labour providers and stakeholders interviewed agreed that (from their perspective) discrimination or racism was not generally an issue for seasonal migrant farm workers. The general feeling was that isolated incidents may sometimes occur in urban centres.

In some cases, local communities ran specific events for seasonal workers, with one community church running an annual ceilidh for all the fruit and veg pickers in the Fife area.

Nevertheless, case study farmers recognised that seasonal workers were not heavily integrated with local communities as they spent the bulk of their time working on the farm and while workers usually engaged in weekly shopping trips, they were generally reluctant to spend their earnings unnecessarily (e.g. in local pubs). Despite this, large numbers of workers using local supermarkets was recognised as having an impact on the local economy, with one local supermarket apparently commenting to a farmer that their business increased by 30% over the summer due to the influx of seasonal workers.

This lack of seasonal farm-based worker integration contrasted with the labour provider and producer group interviewees. These businesses recognised that many of their longer-term permanent workers were well integrated, including some who had bought homes, married Scottish colleagues and had children in local schools. This was seen by some interviewees as having ‘boosted’ rural communities including church attendances, spending in the local economy and increased numbers of young and working age people. These interviewees also recognised that permanent migrant workers may be more likely (than seasonal workers) to experience xenophobia from a ‘ less-accepting small minority’ of the Scottish public, reflecting the worker interview findings (where most incidents were reported by permanent workers in urban areas).


Back to top