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.


Background to the research

The Scottish Government commissioned Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research, Fraser of Allander Institute and Newcastle University to undertake a study to:

1) estimate the number of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers in urban and rural Scotland, and

2) to explore the experiences of seasonal migrant workers living and working in Scotland; the conditions underpinning seasonal/temporal work; whether it is important for family to be able to join workers while they are living in Scotland as is currently permitted under free movement; and future plans for residency post-Brexit.

The issue of the prevalence of seasonal migrant workers is pertinent, and while there are figures regarding the proportion of migrant workers in the UK from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and Annual Population Survey (APS), little is known about the seasonal migrant population. They are not already captured in these surveys as they sample private households and therefore, do not include those migrants who live in hotels and caravan parks. Data on temporal migrant labour is needed to measure the potential impact to the workforce pool in rural and urban Scotland, if there are changes to the status, rights, and flexibility provided to seasonal migrant workers under free movement.

There is an important rural dimension to this research, as it has been suggested that the migrant workforce in rural areas may present opportunities for regeneration and addressing labour market shortages in the case of population decline in these areas (de Lima and Wright 2008). Within the context of this study, there are seasonal elements to the employment patterns in certain sectors of the rural economy such as agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

Population growth in Scotland has been largely attributed to inward migration which is important given the demographic challenges related to lower fertility rates and an older age structure of the Scottish population comparative to the rest of the UK; these demographic challenges are more acutely felt in remote rural communities of Scotland where there is an outward-migration of young population and de-population trends (Boswell 2019).

The issue of migration and labour/workforce is fused within policy contexts.

Defining key terms

Before detailing the policy context, there are definitional issues in relation to the study, which are important to unpack for purposes of clarity.

The International Organisation for Migration 2019 defines "migrant" as "an umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons."

The Migration Observatory paper "Who Counts as a Migrant ?" 2019 sets out the complex use of the term "migrant" in that it can take a variety of different meanings including individuals of foreign birth, foreign citizenship, those that have moved to a new country to stay temporarily even if this is for less than six months, or those who move to a new country with plans to settle for the longer-term. There is also confusion arising from instances whereby the term is used to describe children who are UK nationals, but whose parents are foreign-born or foreign-nationals (Anderson and Blinder 2019).

When thinking about the term "migrant worker", the UN Convention on the Rights of the Migrant provide the following definition: " a person who is engaged in remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national."

State policies in relation to migration vary depending on political and economic goals as well as broad social attitudes (Castles 2000). This impacts the various categories of migrants as defined by state policies, within which the terms seasonal and temporary migrant workers exist.

Language concerning seasonal and temporary migrant employmment indicate the pattern of employment undertaken by migrant workers. The fomer term indicates employment undertaken by a person in a State of which he or she is not a national, for less than a year and which is typically concentrated in industries with seasonal peaks such as agriculture, hospitality and construction (Castles 1987).

The latter is a broader term to describe employment undertaken by a person in a State of which he or she is not a national, for a time limited period either a fixed-term, on a project-specific- basis, or task-based contract. This term encompasses derivative terms such as casual workers, guest workers, and overseas contract workers. Students can also engage in temporary work whereby they combine work with education or other responsibilities which keep them from committing to full-time employment (ILO 2019).

In the UK, in addition to the current immigration system comprising of 5 tiers, there are varied patterns of migration flowing from free movement within the European Union (EU) which mean that there is greater flexibility for EU workers than what is implied by these high level definitions of seasonal and temporary migrant workers and related programmes.

In the context of this study, there is reference to migrant workers performing lower skilled work; it should be borne in mind that migrants are more likely to work in jobs for which they are overqualified (Chiswick and Miller 2008). To contexualise this, the Migration Advisory at Oxford University estimates that 56% of highly educated migrant workers in the UK were in low and medium skilled work in 2018 (Fernandez-Reino and Rienzo 2020).

Policy Context

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Home Office that advises the UK Government on migration issues has been commissioned to review options for future immigration policy post-Brexit. The MAC propose that future immigration policy will need to be aligned with the demands of the UK labour market encouraging primarily "economic migration".

The UK Government's White Paper on future immigration policy proposed a single migration system for all migrants; EU citizens will be subject to immigration control once free movement ends as a result of the UK's departure from the European Union.

The subsequent Home Office policy statement[4] published in February 2020 sets out proposals to prioritise skilled migrants by expanding a skills-based migration system with points for differently weighted criteria. Individuals are required to have a total of 70 points to be eligible under the route, with 50 of those points being attained through the three mandatory requirements: having a job offer from a sponsored employer, the job being at an appropriate skill level (RQF 3+) ; speaking English to a minimum standard. These requirements are mandatory in that they are not 'tradeable' in the points-based system and a shortfall in one of these characteristics cannot be recovered by gaining more points in other characteristics. The tradeable characteristics include ; having a job in a shortage occupation or having a PHD in a relevant STEM subject both of which attract 20 points.

Salary is also tradeable in this route, although earnings between £20,480 and £23,039 do not attract any points this can be made up by qualifying for one of the two tradeable characteristics above. There are a limited number of other combinations to reach the 70 point threshold, and for the majority of applicants it is likely to be through earnings above the £25,600 general salary threshold.

Short-term, temporary and seasonal migrant workers, which are the focus of this study, would not be eligible for the worker route available under the points-based system

There is also the reintroduction and expansion of the post-study work visa for international students, which has been extended to two years after graduating from a British university[5]; this policy has the dual aim of retaining skills within the labour market as well as attracting higher numbers of international students to UK universities. On this route, graduates can take up work of any skill level across any sector of the economy.

While migration policies do not typically specify the race, ethnicity or origins of migrants per se there is a potential that requirements in relation to salary thresholds and skills levels may encourage migration from certain countries.

"Using skills, language knowledge, possession of capital or assumptions on 'settlement capability' may favour people from certain countries or backgrounds over others." (Castles 2000;153)

Recognising the distinct role of temporary labour to the UK economy, as well as labour market demands for "low skilled" workers, there was the proposition of introducing a temporary worker route not tied to any specific sector, as well as expanding the existing pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agriculture.

The proposed UK temporary worker route was a transitory measure up until 2025 as the UK adjusts to migration patterns after free movement ends[6]. The route would have been open to nationals from specified "low risk countries" to work in the UK for a maximum of 12 months with a subsequent 12 month cooling off period.

For the edible horticulture sector, there is a seasonal workers pilot scheme which is run by the Home Office in collaboration with employment agencies, Concordia and Pro-force, to enable certain soft fruit and vegetable farmers to employ non-EU workers. This scheme is specifically targeting agricultural students within Russia, Moldova and Ukraine.

It is important to note that while the seasonal scheme is likely to continue and be expanded for the agricultural sector, the temporary worker route has been rendered defunct as of recent announcements concerning UK migration policy [7].

The temporary worker route is referred to within the research as it was a proposed route for the population of the research at the time in which fieldwork was conducted - 2019. Feedback on aspects of the route may be considered when thinking about potential future sector specific routes for short-term and temporary migrant workers.

The temporary worker route as described above is no longer available instead under the current Tier 5 temporary worker category of visas[8] there are limited provisions for specialist occupations such as creative and sportspeople, charity workers and ministers of religion.

Literature in relation to temporary and seasonal schemes outline a "triple win" by emphasising the benefits of meeting labour market needs while reducing public concerns over permanent settlement of migrants. While the schemes are portrayed as opportunistic for employers/host countries, there are also reported benefits for migrants in terms of providing access to the labour market in high income states as well as the potential to develop new skills (Conserdine and Samuk 2018).

However it is worth mentioning that there are mixed views in terms of the transferable benefits to migrant workers, as they are often at higher risk of exploitation due to factors such as language barriers, lower levels of localised knowledge and access to networks, as well as precarity stemming from their immigration status (Fernández-Reino and Reinzo 2019).

Both the proposed temporary worker route and the seasonal worker scheme impact the options available to workers who choose to come to the UK through these channels, including having no recourse to public funds, no ability to bring dependents with them or the option of switching into another visa category. Both the temporary worker route and the pilot scheme also do not provide a pathway to settlement.

In relation to the agricultural pilot, the emphasis on student workers, however, may limit circular migration and issues arising from the lack of access to public funds, the ability to bring their spouse or children, and settlement.

Pathways to settlement are driven by a number of factors but most importantly the ability to bring over wider networks of family and friends to the host country (Trevena 2018) are thus designed to encourage migrants to return to their home country after the fixed-term period of employment. In sum, they present a significant departure from the flexibility enjoyed under free movement.

Importantly, further, there seasonal workers pilot has only been expanded to to 10,000 places across the UK for the forthcoming season; this will not be enough to meet labourdemands. Research conducted by Scotland's Rural College in 2018[9] has conservatively estimated that there are 9,257 seasonal migrant workers in Scottish agriculture alone.UK farming unions have maintained that approximately 70,000 seasonal visas are needed to compensate for the loss of free movement.

In their report on EEA migration in the UK, the MAC noted that to compensate for the loss of free movement, there are further options whereby the demand for "low skilled" employment can be met, for instance through the proposed expansion of the Tier 5 Youth Mobility category. This route enables individuals aged from 18 to 30 to live and work in the UK for up to 2 years and is open to those who have certain types of British Nationality or are from a specified list of countries. It should be noted that this scheme has typically promoted "cultural exchange" as opposed to being a labour migration programme (Fernández-Reino and Reinzo 2019).

There is discussion concerning the impact of these proposals in terms of future migration to Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Employers who rely on temporary or seasonal migrant workers depend to some extent on circular migration whereby individuals return to their home country after a period of employment and then return to the UK again. For employers this is beneficial in terms of retaining skilled and experienced staff and for employees this guarantees security of labour to meet business demand. The seasonal agricultural worker scheme and the Tier 5 Youth Mobility route are time-limited and will inhibit this form of circular movement.

Significant migration to the UK has flowed from EU expansion, particularly citizens of the EU-8. It is unclear how a level playing field will impact migration patterns and if will it stimulate temporal migration from Ukraine, Moldova, and other "low-risk" countries for work purposes. Analysis of APS data conducted by the Migration Observatory has shown that the most common reason for migration to the UK among non-EU nationals is for family reasons (49%), in contrast among EU citizens the most common reason is work (45%), with a higher proportion citing this as the main reason among those from the EU-8 (55%) and EU-2 countries (Vargas-Silva and Reinzo 2019).

The Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population has reviewed proposals set out in the UK Government's White Paper on Immigration, and argued that a distinct system is needed for Scotland that recognises Scottish requirements and preferences, with the aim of off-setting demographic challenges and sustaining local communities in Scotland.

Much of the criticism is focused on the proposals for the skills-based system. There is a view that there are differences in terms of the types of skills needed in Scotland than the rest of the UK (Boswell et al. 2018). Related to this is the view that the Scottish-only Shortage Occupation List while useful in prioritising the skill-sets needed in Scotland, falls short of fully accomodating Scottish labour market needs (Hepburn 2017).

The MAC recently published their report on on the appropriate level and design of salary thresholds for immigration in relation to the UK's future skills-based work migration system.

The MAC do not believe any system of regional salary thresholds is optimal and recommend that there should be a single national salary threshold, in line with the approach taken by the Low Pay Commission on the minimum wage

The MAC also recommend the general threshold should should fall by around £4,400 from the current £30,000 to around £25,600.

However there should be a separate pilot visa for 'remote' areas of the UK, part of which could be lower salary thresholds for migrants into those areas. This should only be done with a full evaluation to understand its effectiveness and impacts.

There are also differential effects related to tax revenues generated from migrant labour and public spending on services. The Scottish Government estimates on average each EU citizen working in Scotland contributes an additional £34,400 in GDP and moreover, EU citizens working in Scotland contribute £10,400 in Government Revenue[10].

Overall, migrant workers tend to be younger and economically active, and are less likely to consume public services, therefore, they present a favourable balance in terms of generating tax revenues and using public services. Nonetheless, the share of tax revenues are spread between the UK and Scottish Government therefore additional analysis is needed to evaluate the distribution of tax revenues and delivery of public services, and how these will be impacted when net migration from the EU is reduced.

Furthermore, economic migration from Europe has been concentrated on lower skilled economic migration from the EU8. However, the focus on "lower skilled jobs which locals do not want to do" has implications for how migrants are perceived by the host community and their opportunities for social mobility and improving their English language skills. Focus group based research conducted by the Institute for Government has shown broad public support to reduce net migration and for migrants to demonstrate their "contribution" which is perhaps being missed by the lower skilled roles that migrants typically perform within the context of the wider economy (Owen et. al 2019).

Geddes and Scott 2010 argue that the reliance on migrant workers in low-skilled sectors is "constructed" as it is possible to offset the costs of an uncertain market on to a certain group of workers. This is important in the context of temporary contracts, as there is a reported negative wage premium among those on temporary contracts comparative to those on permanent contracts – the European Commission found that workers on permanent contracts earn on average 15% more than those on temporary contracts when individual and job characteristics are controlled for (Dias da Silva and Turrini 2015).

There are also concerns over the sustainability of the assumption that migrants will work on jobs that locals do not want to do, as it assumes a static mobility and may often entail de-skilling of migrants as they are not utilising their skills and qualifications (Owen et al. 2019). The proposed changes to migration policy which place certain restrictions on migrants may affect the attractiveness or accessibility of the proposition of lower skilled work in the UK.

Recognising the aforementioned issues, there is a view that a differential system is required for Scotland. One proposal is for a Scottish Visa[11] to be introduced for people who want to live and work in Scotland which would operate as an extra option alongside existing UK visa routes.

Key features of the Scottish visa include:

  • Eligibility criteria set according to needs identified in Scotland
  • Scottish Ministers accountable to Scottish Parliament for policy and decisions
  • Migrants holding Scottish Visa required to live in Scotland; enforced via the Scottish tax code.
  • No sponsorship role for employers in this route – so no sponsor licencing costs or bureaucracy
  • Not liable for the Immigration Skills Charge, as currently defined by UK Government
  • No salary threshold in this route
  • Online application process
  • Offers pathway to permanent settlement in Scotland.

While it is pertinent to create the policy and legislative frameworks to enable migration policy to work for Scotland, there is also work required to build public acceptance of the need for migration as well as proposals to make Scotland an attractive destination for migrants to live, work and study through a suite of reception and integration strategies (Trevena 2018). This is important in the context of settings which most acutely depend on migration such as rural areas which have less exposure to migrants and thus less infrastructure and services to welcome newcomers and at times less positive attitudes towards immigration more generally than large urban areas (ibid.). Therefore it has been noted that softer social levers should be applied to enable positive integration outcomes for migrants coming to Scotland in addition to policies to increase net migration overall.

Research aims

For clarity the aims of the study are to:

  • estimate the number of seasonal migrant workers in Scotland across a range of business sectors;
  • explore the view of employers in relation to seasonal migrant workers and how Brexit may affect their future choices and actions; importantly, if they expect shortages to the workforce pool as a result the loss of free movement and what actions if any employers plan to take to overcome these;
  • explore the motivations of seasonal migrant workers to work in Scotland/rural Scotland; the living and working conditions underpinning seasonal work, whether it is important for family to be able to join workers while they are living in Scotland as is currently permitted under free movement; and future plans for residency post-Brexit.

Report Structure

The report is structured around the research aims.The next chapter of the report details the study methodology for the quantitative and qualitative elements of the study and provides guidance on interpreting the results.

Following details of the methodology, we present the international literature and evidence review. Tentative reccomendations flowing from the desk research are presented following the presentation of the review.

This is followed by estimates of non-agricultural seasonal migrant workers as well as the profile of seasonal workers in terms of their gender, nationality as well as their length of employment, hours and days worked.

The final section sets out qualitative feedback from managers and seasonal migrant workers in terms of living and working in Scotland, and future plans after Brexit. Feedback is provided on the UK Government's now defunct temporary worker route and reccomendations flowing from the primary research.


First and foremost, we would like to thank all research participants who have taken part in the interviews and focus group discussions as well as the businesses who have participated in the employers' survey.

We would like to thank Eva Kleinert, Amelia Kuch, Graeme Beale and their colleagues from Scottish Government for their support and guidance throughout the project. We would also like to thank the Research Advisory Group for their invaluable input to the research:

  • Olivia Pires (Policy Adviser, Migration and Population, SG)
  • Denise Patrick (Statistician, National Records of Scotland)
  • David Campbell (Statistician, OCEAS, SG)
  • Frederick Foxton (Economist, Agriculture Analysis, SG)
  • Alistair Prior (Rural Communities and Rural Policy Lead, SG)
  • Pamela Berry (Rural Economy Policy, SG)
  • Silvia Soriano-Riviera (Researcher, Strategic Analysis Unit, SG)



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