Non-agricultural seasonal and temporary migrant workers in urban and rural Scotland: report

Report providing an estimate of the proportion of seasonal migrant workers outside of the agricultural sector in Scotland and information on the living and working conditions of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers in rural and urban Scotland.

Executive Summary

Background and purpose of the study

The purpose of this report is to provide an estimate of the proportion of seasonal migrant workers outside of the agricultural sector in Scotland; and provide information on the living and working conditions of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers in rural and urban Scotland.

Currently, the evidence base to answer these questions is limited. While there is data on the number of migrant workers who are either non-UK born or non-UK nationals in Scotland, from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and Annual Population Survey (APS), little is known about the seasonal migrant population who are not captured in these surveys as they sample private households and therefore, do not capture those migrants who live in hotels and caravan parks. Additionally, there is only limited evidence on the living and working conditions of seasonal migrant workers with studies focusing more on non-seasonal migrant workers.

Policy context

The UK Government's White Paper on future immigration policy[1] 2018 proposed a single immigration system for all migrants; EU citizens will become subject to immigration control once free movement ends as a result of the UK's departure from the European Union. The paper also set out proposals for a temporary worker route which is explored in more detail in this study.

The Home Office policy statement on the UK's points-based system[2] published in February 2020 sets out plans to prioritise skilled migrants by expanding a skills-based migration system with points for a variety of characteristics including having a job offer by a sponsored employer at the right skill level and speaking English. Importantly, the 2020 paper makes changes to the routes available to lower skilled workers, including rendering the proposed Temporary worker route defunct.

Importantly, under the current proposals, there are limited options for migrant workers to perform low-skilled work in the UK; these proposed changes apply to the seasonal migrant workers sampled in the research.

Therefore, the routes available to seasonal migrant workers outside of the agricultural sector – the audience of the research - will be significantly reduced under the proposed expansion of the skills-based migration system.


The research study comprised of the following elements:

  • an international literature and evidence review
  • economic and data modelling to inform the sample frame for quantitative research
  • a mixed-mode survey of 1,067 employers across rural and urban Scotland
  • 8 qualitative interviews with employers of seasonal migrant workers
  • qualitative interviews and focus group discussions among 28 seasonal and temporary migrant workers.

Prevalence of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers

A mixed-mode survey of employers was conducted between the 1st of July and the 2nd of August 2019, yielding 1,067 completed interviews (177 online and 890 by telephone).

  • Overall 40 businesses reported that they employ seasonal migrant workers, comprising a prevalence of 3.7%.
  • In total, 1,747 seasonal migrant workers were employed in the 40 businesses who reported that they employ any seasonal migrant workers, with a minimum of 1 seasonal worker through to a maximum of 500 seasonal workers within any one firm, indicating a high level of variance in the data.
  • There was sectoral variation in the data, with a higher prevalence of seasonal migrant workers within distribution, hotels and restaurants as well as the seafood processing sector.

In using the survey data to produce estimates of the seasonal workforce, we have focused on the distribution, hotel and restaurant sector as this is where there is a greater share of data points for grossing to the population (n=21). The research estimates that 7,100 seasonal migrant workers were employed in the distribution, hotel and restaurant sector.

Aside from the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, the survey data can be used to provide an estimate of what our sample implies about the number of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers across the whole economy. Doing this on the basis of the sample that we have collected through the survey poses a number of challenges.

Firstly, we have very small sample sizes in some sectors, and when we consider sector and size band which we have done for the process of estimation, some cells are empty. The only thing that is possible is to disregard sectoral differences and focus on employment by size band. This is problematic in that we have observed that sector is an important factor in the prevalence of seasonal migrant workers within the economy. Having said this, the study estimates that the number of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers in the economy is 51,400.

The survey data provides information on the profile of seasonal migrant workers employed within non-agricultural sectors in Scotland. The following are some of the key findings in relation to the profile of seasonal migrant workers:

  • There were slightly more men than women employed in seasonal work (54% compared with 43%).
  • More than two-fifths (42%) of seasonal migrant workers originated from Poland and almost a third (31%) from Romania.
  • The vast majority of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers are employed in the summer months from May through to September.
  • Employers tend to employ non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers for short-term periods - 30% of firms employ seasonal workers for 1-2 months and 31% employ seasonal workers for 3-5 months.
  • 36% of seasonal workers were employed as returners from previous years. An equal proportion (36%) were employed through recruitment agencies.
  • Just over two-fifths (44%) of firms provided accommodation to their staff recruited on a seasonal basis.
  • Around two-thirds of seasonal migrant workers (68%) are working in elementary occupations.
  • On average, seasonal migrant workers work for 8 hours per day, 5 days a week which equates to 40 hours of employment per week.

Qualitative research findings

The survey found a low prevalence of seasonal migrant workers within the non-agricultural sectors, related in part to the narrow definition of seasonal migrant workers (see page 12) deployed in the survey questionnaire. Therefore, we explored migrant employment patterns within the qualitative research.

The main research finding from the qualitative research is that within the non-agricultural sectors there is a more complex picture in terms of employment patterns with a mix of migrant workers undertaking seasonal, casual, and temporary employment as well as students undertaking work in the summer months. Therefore, there is a more varied ecosystem of migrant employment out with the agricultural sectors which is in part related to the flexibilities that flow from free movement as well as the other routes for migrant employment such as Tier 5 Youth Mobility[3]. This is also impacted by the vastly different nature of the industry sectors that we are grouping as non-agricultural within the research; this includes sectors as varied as fishing and forestry, banking and finance, construction and energy and water, these all have differing employment patterns.

Employer perspectives on seasonal/temporary migrant employment

69% of employers reported that Brexit will have a negative impact on their ability to recruit seasonal migrant workers in the next 12 months; 58% reported that Brexit will have a negative impact on their ability to retain seasonal migrant workers to their business.

There were varying degrees to which employers targeted seasonal and temporary migrant labour. Some businesses described that it was by chance that predominantly migrant workers respond to their job adverts – therefore, managers reported to have little control over the nationality of their staff. In contrast, one food-processing business had a process of targeted recruitment with a permanent office set up near the Croatian-Serbian border.

Managers commonly expressed a difference in "attitude" among migrant workers comparative to local indigenous workers. Some of this relates to the identification of migrants as being 'good workers' and in part this is created by employers, but migrants also play into this role.

There was a view that there is a structural dependence on migrant workers given perspectives on the nature and desirability of the work, the temporal patterns of employment, as well as the lower wages offered for this type of work (most pay minimum wage).

Nonetheless, managers interviewed as part of the research emphasised the progressive employment conditions offered by the business. Among those paying minimum wage, there was mention that their business model did not enable them to pay a higher amount for transient, short-term employment contracts.

Apart from working conditions in relation to pay and hours, some employers within the hospitality and food processing sector provided accommodation and transport to migrant workers. This was viewed favourably by migrant workers.

There were mixed views with respect to the skills level of the staff. For those working in food processing and packaging there was a sense that the work was low-skilled as it involved repeating a prescribed task throughout the day. On the other hand, for managers in the hospitality sector there was a clear view that the work is not "low-skilled" as it is commonly characterised. There was a view that the soft skills required to work in the service sector should not be discounted. This has implications for the framing of migrant workers within this sector, as the emphasis on future policy is to attract high-skilled workers.

There were varying levels of concern arising from the issue of Brexit, dependent on the intensity of seasonal/temporary migrant employment as well as the proportion of business that is contingent upon trading relations with Europe. One business had moved their registered office to Europe, while others expressed frustration in repeatedly developing Brexit mitigation plans over the past 3 years. There was a view that the UK Government's proposals for migration would not help to service business demand for "low skilled" labour. Importantly, it should be noted that while migrant workers may be undertaking low skilled work that does not necessarily mean that they themselves are lower skilled.

Lived experience of seasonal and temporary migrant workers

Seasonal and temporary migrant workers interviewed as part of the research discussions were from Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain. One interview was conducted among a temporary worker from Canada on a Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa to Scotland.

There were a range of motivations for seasonal and temporary migrant workers to live and work in Scotland; these reflect the fluid and shifting nature of migrant experiences. The most common motivation was financial, to earn money and send remittance back home.

Seasonal and temporary workers performed a range of tasks within the businesses including housekeeping, cleaning, catering, waitressing, reception tasks within the hospitality sector, food processing and packaging roles, forklift drivers and wood saw operative positions, and maintenance/handyman roles.

Many described having informal arrangements for work, which had both positive and negative effects. Informal arrangements meant that migrant workers had found employment with relative ease but on the other hand employers had also invited workers for a "trial period" for which they did not get paid and which did not result in a formalised offer for that specific job – in effect working for free.

Among a small number of workers undertaking casual experience-based employment opportunities, there were reported examples in which seasonal and temporary migrant workers were not paid for their work, instead they were compensated with accommodation and meals. Some temporary migrant workers interviewed for the study were on zero-hours contracts.

A recurrent concern among seasonal and temporary migrant workers was that employers had underpaid them for their work as their hours fluctuate week to week and so it was easy for them to make mistakes. There were varying levels of confidence reported among workers in terms of challenging issues around their pay.

Most workers did not have sick pay protections including statutory requirements, and so were "very careful not to get ill".

While these experiences may not be peculiar to the migrant experience and may reflect issues with the wider labour market, seasonal and temporary migrant workers are less likely to be aware of their rights under UK employment law and are less likely to be unionised and know how to challenge their employer. Furthermore, there are issues arising from lower levels of English language skills and a lack of confidence in terms of raising concerns or problems with employers.

There was some ambivalence and apathy concerning Brexit in that seasonal migrant workers did not feel that the policy would impact them or that it was their place to comment on the issue.

Fundamentally, seasonal and temporary migrant workers pointed out that they are "workers" and so what is pivotal for them is security of employment. There was a perception that the UK/Scottish economy may weaken after Brexit and that some businesses may relocate to the European Union. Therefore, it was felt that if there are negative impacts of Brexit to the UK/Scottish economy, then the proposition of working in Scotland in seasonal and temporary employment will become less attractive.

Temporary Worker Route

At the time of the research fieldwork, the main proposed immigration route for lower skilled employment was the temporary worker route. Feedback on this route was gathered from research participants. While this particular route is no longer being considered by the UK Government; elements of the feedback can be taken into account when designing potential future sector specific immigration schemes for temporary and short-term workers.

There were mixed views regarding the temporary worker route among employers and workers alike; at the time of the research, this was the proposed migration route for temporary and seasonal migrant workers in the UK outside of the agricultural sector.

For businesses there was a view that the scheme did not address their requirements to secure a flow of temporary migrant workers to meet business demands. For seasonal and temporary migrant workers, outside of the agricultural sector, for whom this would be the main migration route post-Brexit, the route equally did not hold favour.

The 12-month cooling off period was the main point of contention, as it does not offer workers the flexibility of extending their stay; and it does not enable employers to retain migrant workers as returners to their business. This is important in terms of the distribution of benefits, as staff retention helps to develop the skills of the migrant worker as well as help them to integrate with the wider workforce.

The point concerning "no recourse to public funds" was not seen as an issue as there was a view among seasonal and temporary migrant workers that "they shouldn't take advantage of the system". Although there was some discussion around whether migrant workers would still be paying into the system, through taxation, and not being able to get any of the reciprocal benefits.

In terms of the right to work checks there was a view that for the right candidate, managers would be willing to make an effort, however there are diminishing returns when employers are dealing with higher volumes of workers and the work is elementary in nature so it is not tied to the skillset of a specific worker.

Furthermore, in comparison to other international temporary workers programmes explored in the literature review, the proposed programme does not incorporate elements that are recognised as best practice for circular migration, this includes:

  • ensuring protections for migrant workers' rights,
  • provision of requirements for pastoral support and duty of care towards migrant workers,
  • and closer governmental relations between sending and host countries to coordinate migration and reintegration of workers to their home country



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