Cross-cutting themes from managers of seasonal migrant workers
Rationale for employing seasonal migrant workers
There were varying levels of concentration of seasonal and temporary employment, for some businesses a vast proportion of employees are seasonal while for other smaller businesses this equated to one or two employees. The key factor in relation to this is business size. A point of comparison by sectors is that within food-processing businesses there was a high concentration of workers, while forestry and hotel businesses reported more mixed numbers of seasonal and temporary migrant workers.
The proportion of seasonal and temporary migrant workers employed by businesses, corresponded with views regarding how critical this form of labour was to business operations.
Some managers mentioned that their business model requires them to employ seasonal and temporary labour, however they expressed a preference to employ workers on a more permanent basis to retain skills and expertise – to avoid the "churn of staff". There is a level of social desirability related to this perspective, as seasonal and temporary employment helps to reduce overall business costs – indeed, one manager admitted that this form of employment equated to "cheap labour".
"We prefer full timers, having a core of consistent staff helps with customer service, but that's just not an option for us". (Hospitality business)
"I can't afford to keep them going, but we try get them back the next year" (Forestry business)
There was the view among managers that if their business model and turnover permitted them to employ staff permanently then they would do this. For those who were keen to retain staff, building relationships with workers was seen to be key to ensure that the same staff can return year on year.
Managers commonly reported employing seasonal and temporary workers on 2-3 month contracts for predominantly elementary and "manual" positions.
In the distribution, hotels and restaurants, there was an insistence, however that there are training opportunities provided to staff as well as career progression opportunities if employers are able to keep staff after the seasonal period, therefore the work is not intrinsically of an elementary nature. In this respect, work within the hotels sector differs from the traditional forms of seasonal employment whereby there are limited options to continue employment after the season is over.
This is demonstrable as two of the managers interviewed as part of the research started off as temporary/ seasonal workers in housekeeping positions who had effectively "worked their way up" as they had decided to stay in Scotland and were thus able to benefit from upward social mobility.
While the seasonal and temporary employment patterns were key to businesses, there were varying degrees to which migrant labour was targeted. 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. This was acutely felt by managers in remote rural settings where there is not a large native population pool to draw from. Some businesses who have more fluid arrangements mentioned that recruitment is primarily from employees coming to their premises in search of work, again permitting little control over the nationality of staff.
In these contexts, there was specific mention of the fact that the employment rate is relatively high so much of the working age population is already in work –"there is 0% unemployment in Stornoway"; so to fill vacancies for seasonal, temporal and transient work another source of labour is required which is provided by the flow of transient migrant workers.
Some businesses commented that there was a process of referrals where staff members suggest a family or friend to help fill vacancies which led to a concentration of staff within a certain nationality group – this was not viewed negatively by managers as it encouraged positive workforce bonding within businesses.
Businesses also described contracts that they had with recruitment agencies that specialise in industries that rely on seasonal and temporary labour such as construction, haulage, forestry and associated industries. The recruitment agencies manage arrangements with workers and can work around the hours/periods of employment required by the businesses enabling them to supply seasonal and temporary labour as per demand.
In contrast, one food-processing business had a process of targeted recruitment with a permanent office set up near the Croatian-Serbian border. They described running annual recruitment fairs and providing transportation to bring a large number of workers from Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania for employment opportunities in the Scottish Borders.
"It's cheaper for us to run a job fair in Romania and bring people over than undertake a local recruitment campaign – we need high volumes of people who will do the jobs our customers are looking for" (Food processing business)
While there were varying degrees to which the employment of migrant labour was reported as being targeted, there is a view that migrant workers were more likely to be attracted to seasonal and temporary employment opportunities. There were broadly two reasons for this:
First, there was discussion around the perceived "safety net" provided by social security in Scotland which was seen to inhibit local workers from taking up seasonal or temporary employment as this would mean that they would have to come off benefits. It was felt that there is not enough flexibility within the welfare system for local people to take up seasonal employment opportunities.
Second, there was a view that local workers more broadly do not perceive certain jobs within the service sector as being a desirable career choice, thus creating a reliance on overseas labour. This is in part reflected in the "low-skilled" nature or characterisation of the work. There was a view that while migrant workers are willing to undertake work that was below their skills-level, this attitude was not shared among the local population.
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.
"The work is hard, local Brits wouldn't last a day, we have had some local staff come in for a couple of days and never come back" (Food processing business)
"Staff from Europe are hard-working and reliable" (Hospitality business)
"We have to be honest here, the work is manual and repetitive, I'm looking for staff who are willing to work and that has tended to be Romanians and Lithuanians" (Seafood processing business)
Therefore, while there were varying degress to which migrant labour was targeted for seasonal and temporary employment opportunities outwith the agricultural sectors, 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).
Managers interviewed as part of the research emphasised the progressive employment conditions offered by the business. Overall, managers mentioned that they provide a contract of employment to seasonal and temporary migrant workers which sets out their hours including minimum guaranteed hours, pay and conditions. There were two instances where this was contradicted by the corresponding staff members interviewed within the business.
Some businesses reported that they undertake health condition checks particularly for physically demanding positions and criminal record checks.
For those in seasonal contracts there tended to be guaranteed hours equivalent to a full-time position, or a negotiation concerning working hours as well as provision for over-time. In contrast, among employers of temporary migrant workers there was some use of zero-hours contracts whereby the business was not able to guarantee fixed hours for the worker – this meant that staff had a number of jobs at the same time. However, this did not cause issues for the employer as they often had a surplus of workers on their books, all at zero-hours contracts, so inevitably were always able to find workers when needed.
Typically, managers mentioned that there was minimum wage payment for seasonal and temporary workers, however, one food processing business mentioned that they pay £15 an hour which helped to increase the attractiveness of the offer of employment.
The working conditions were discussed with a view of the pressures of recruiting and retaining seasonal and temporary labour to meet business requirements.
There was discussion that the weakness of the pound impacted the financial return of working in Scotland, which was reinforced through discussions with workers. There was mention that the the pound has fallen 30% against the value of the euro in the past three years from an exchange of 1.48 to 1.08. There was a view that Scottish businesses were therefore competing with other Western European countries such as the Netherlands and Germany for workers from Eastern Europe.
"The sacrafices that EU workers are making to be away from home will not add up when the return is being squeezed" (Hospitality business)
Among those paying minimum wage, there was mention that this is what they were able to pay, and the Scottish living wage was not something which would be affordable, particularly for transient, short-term employment contracts. One business mentioned that they pay "more than the minimum wage" while admitting to paying £8.21 an hour which shows some confusion around the national minimum wage.
In particular, there is no incentive to pay higher wages, as while there are concerns over the flow of migrant workers after Brexit, there has been little material impact felt in terms of businesses' ability to continue to recruit seasonal and temporary migrant workers. Businesses do not necessarily need to retain workers, although this is desirable, and there is a perception that there is a constant flow of migrant workers from the EU8 who fill lower skilled jobs on a temporal basis.
Accommodation and transport
Apart from working conditions in relation to pay and hours, there was discussion of accommodation and transport provided to migrant workers within the hospitality sector as well as food processing. These terms were seen to be particularly important within rural contexts, particularly villages, to attract a migrant workforce to the area, but also in terms of competing with other local businesses for labour.
"EU workers are specifically looking for work that provides accommodation. This gives us a unique selling point" (Hospitality business)
There were varying contexts in which accommodation was provided to migrant workers. The recruitment agency interviewed as part of the study, mentioned that they provide accommodation in caravan parks to seasonal workers, and they also have agreements with landlords within the area to sublet some properties to staff. Providing accommodation to staff helps to prevent some of the difficulties faced by migrant workers in finding accommodation particularly since immigration checks have been introduced on the part of landlords. There was concern that the additional requirements placed on landlords was impacting staff ability to find accommodation as landlords preferred to let to local/Scottish tenants.
However the provision of accommodation by the employer can also introduce vulnerability for the worker depending on the situation – some landlords can deduct rent, and migrants can also feel a heightened sense of vulnerability if they feel that they cannot raise questions about the quality of their accommodation.
In hotels in particular, accommodation was provided to staff as part of their contract of employment, this was often provided within the hotel itself or a neighbouring property. There were varying costs for this and the payment tended to be deducted from the staff wages directly. The reported cost of accommodation provided by the employer ranged from £15 to £50 a week which was lower than the cost of rental accommodation and bills.
This was seen to be crucial in rural areas where there was a low availability of affordable rented accommodation as well as a higher number of AirBnb properties which affected the rental housing stock in the area.
"Airbnb are disruptive to the economy of Oban, Campbeltown and Rothesay, there are around 200 airbnbs in Oban on short-term lets , these aren't housing options for staff, we need to regulate these" (Hospitality business)
The forestry business also provided accommodation to staff on-site as there is no transport available to bring workers to the premises, they would otherwise have to hire a car which is unrealistic given the costs involved.
Some businesses reported that they provide transport to the workplace, particularly when the work is being conducted in an area where there is limited availability of public transport or the transport was costly to staff. For example, one seafood processing business based in Mintlaw provided bus transportation from surrounding towns Fraserburgh and Peterhead.
Profile of workers within businesses
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.
There were small observed gender differences, one manager within the forestry business mentioned that men were more likely to do "outside roles" while women were more likely to perform work "indoors". On balance, while women were overrepresented in service roles, there were both men and women working within the physically demanding food processing, packaging and machine operative positions.
Corresponding with the types of roles that seasonal workers were performing 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. Furthermore, within the forestry business there was a view that there are technical skills related to handling equipment and machinery. This has implications for the framing of migrant workers within this sector, as the emphasis on future policy is to attract high-skilled workers or workers with intermediate levels skills.
Looking at hotels in particular, there was a view that English language skills were a passport to higher paid/skilled positions. The skills differential in their view mostly related to language skills – for instance, within hotels, there was a discussion around how staff can start as housekeepers and then as returners they can get promoted to kitchen staff as their language skills improve and their knowledge and experience is increased. Moreover, staff that have language skills can then be assigned departments that are most short-staffed, providing more ways in which the worker can be utilised.
When considering relations between permanent and seasonal/temporary staff, there was was a view that there were positive relations among staff, particularly as the business/sectors are already populated with European/migrant staff. In addition to this there was mention of social events organised for workers: "we are keen on initatives to encourage staff bonding".
One business mentioned that they had set up a buddy system whereby workers can support each other, this was seen to be important to mix permanent and seasonal/temporary staff together in an oversight and support capacity. While this was seen to be important in terms of encouraging staff to socialise together, this was seen by seasonal migrant workers as a replacement for formalised staff training.
Another business mentioned that they run Gaelic lessons, which seasonal migrant workers are welcome to attend and can bring their families along.
Moreover, some managers described looking to find ways to incentivise seasonal migrant workers to work for them and to return to their business. One manager mentioned that she will be undertaking staff consultations to understand their concerns and future plans to return to the business.
There was a view that there are fewer Polish workers compared with workers from Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria taking on seasonal positions, as a result of recent changes introduced by the Polish government including financial support for younger households to buy a home, and a strong economy, as the Polish economy is growing at a rate of over 4% pa and is the 7th largest economy in the EU. This was noted as there was a perception that there are stronger community relations for Polish migrants within Scotland which means that they are more likely to return back to employment where there are established links with the Polish community.
Impact of Brexit on businesses
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. For some managers, as is documented in other business consultations, there is an inertia regarding Brexit in that little effects have been felt up until now. However, for other businesses issues were more acute in relation to the recruitment and retention of EU staff but also more widely in terms of business operations.
"A lot of people have left" (Seafood processing business)
One business described moving their registered offices to Croatia as a result of Brexit, and mentioned that they had incurred significant legal fees in the process.
More generally, among businesses that were reliant on conditions arising from European Union membership such as free movement and the customs union, there was recurrent mention of the difficulty in formulating Brexit impact mitigation plans.
Another manager noted that she had been in meetings with Scottish Government concerning Brexit for three years, since the July 2016 referendum, she expressed a strong feeling that nothing has been done over this period to provide certainty regarding immigration policies post-Brexit.
"We are one month away from the October 31st deadline, it's too late to be discussing what the immigration system should be now" (Seafood processing business)
"Tourism is critical to the rural economy – we need the workforce to support that" (Hospitality business)
There was specific concern that there would be a decrease in circular seasonal/temporary employment post-Brexit.
"We can't bank on our EU staff returning to the hotel, this means the added costs of fresh employment each year" (Hospitality business)
Managers described that the employment of migrant workers was not only impacted by the uncertainty arising from Brexit but also the described "divisive nature" of the referendum which has coloured sentiment towards migrant workers.
"Brexit has empowered some people to be openly racist" (Food processing business)
There was specific mention of "nasty comments" being left on job posts for migrant workers as well as some observed racist language used towards migrant workers. One manager noted that the areas where workers are living (often where factories are based) are suburban and therefore local residents can at times display poor attitudes towards migrants. One example given was Spanish factory workers being told that the "government should kick them out now" as an indication of wider anti-immigration sentiment arising post-Brexit.
In light of the concerns regarding how immigration policies may impact on businesses' ability to recruit seasonal migrant workers, one manager described the Scottish vVsa proposalasuseful in attracting workers' specifically to Scotland. In particular, this was seen to be valuable in that there are no restrictions on the skills level of the worker.
In terms of tangible effects felt by businesses, there was descriptions of increased costs for machinery and processing materials that are sourced from Europe as well as food items from Europe. This meant that businesses had to look at diversifying their supply chain and to explore more locally sourced produce.
"95% of my produce is exported to Europe. I am considering if I should move my business to Europe.." (Seafood processing business)
"Our machinery comes from Europe, so that all has a knock on effect on costs" (Forestry business)