Lived experience of seasonal migrant workers
Research discussions were conducted among 28 seasonal and temporary migrant workers. We found that within the non-agricultural sectors there is a range 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. Where there are differences in the experiences of seasonal and temporary migrant workers, these are drawn out in the analysis.
Motivations for living and working in Scotland
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 2 year work visa to Scotland. While most of the migrant workers interviewed for the study benefited from free movement, the visa requirement for the Canadian worker was seen to be "onerous". In particular, the visa application required a payment of $1,000 CAD, health insurance and the submission of bank statements.
This is important when considering the immigration routes that will be available to migrant workers after free movement ends, in terms of perceptions of the ease of the process.
There were varying periods of time that seasonal and temporary migrant workers had been employed in Scotland, ranging from one to ten months at the time of the research discussions.
A key and consistent theme found in the research was the general positivity of living and working in Scotland expressed particularly by seasonal and temporary migrant workers within rural settings. There was frequent mention of the Scottish scenery and landscape - "jaw dropping scenery" – and the comparison that Scottish people are friendlier compared to people back home.
"Scotland is beautiful" (Temporary migrant worker)
"People have a completely different behaviour than in Poland – people are so nice and friendly. It's amazing" (Seasonal migrant worker)
"It's totally different here.There are only 1,000 people living in the village and everyone stops to say hello and ask about you, where you from" (Seasonal migrant worker)
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, and this finding was observed among seasonal and temporary workers alike. Some workers described that they were economists, history teachers', carers by profession, and that in their home country they were not able to find employment in their respective fields. This was however not a unanimous experience and some workers described lower levels of skills and professional experience. This finding counters the assumption that seasonal and temporary workers are necessarily lower-skilled than the waves of migrants that migrated post-accession, as the data indicates mixed patterns of skills/qualifications/experience among workers.
Some participants reflected that they were undertaking a completely different line of work in their home countries than the profession that they had been trained in - "some of us worked in call centres, pubs, factories" but that it was difficult to keep a job for any period of time leading to a high degree of uncertainty in terms of employment in their home country. To provide context to these experiences, there was a description of the higher levels of unemployment experienced in the EU8 countries as a result of the slow recovery from the financial crash.
This meant that seasonal and temporary migrant workers were more amenable to work in different professions in Scotland, as it was felt to be relatively easier to obtain employment opportunities. Therefore, living and working in Scotland was a means of finding employment, and sending remittance back home.
"I couldn't find a job in Hungary so my friends' brother reccomended me to come to Edinburgh to find work" (Seasonal migrant worker)
"The wages are two or three times higher than back home" (Temporary migrant worker)
For others, there was discussion that living and working in Scotland was a means of exploring opportunities abroad, in particular by working in a seasonal or temporary job migrant workers could explore the types of employment opportunities, and experience living standards in Scotland to see if it is a place where they can build a life. Seasonal migrant workers decscribed that they had come to experience a new lifestyle, and chose Scotland as it had been referred to them by family or friends - "I came here with my friend to see how it goes".
"I used to work in financial services and I want to change my profession so I started to look up seasonal work, volunteer opportunities, exchange programmes online" (Seasonal migrant worker)
An expressed motivation for these participants was also to improve their English as this was seen to hold the key in terms of finding employment internationally.
"If I improve my English, I can find a job anywhere" (Temporary migrant worker)
There were also students who were simply interested in earning extra money over the Summer period.
For those residing in rural areas - the vast majority of participants interviewed - there was an appreciation of the pace and quality of life experienced in Scotland in that "there is no rush". For a small number of participants, working seasonally in Scotland was also a gateway to experience the Highlands in their free-time.
"In my break I can take a walk around the harbour, walk around nature – it's so calm" (Seasonal migrant worker)
In particular for the Canadian temporary worker, coming to Scotland for work for a short-term period was explicitly linked to tourism.
While living and working in Scotland, there was vital importance attached to maintaining links with family in their home country. Primarily, this was achieved by sending money back home, some seasonal and temporary migrant workers described trying to live as modestly as possible to enable them to send the maximum amount of money to their families.
Some migrant workers had brought their partner of families with them so that they could work together:
- one Lithuanian seasonal worker mentioned that his wife was working in the same hotel as him;
- another Polish factory worker had brought her mother to work with her in the same business.
Therefore, wider family networks are engaged in seasonal and temporary employment. There were also instances whereby migrant workers had brought their family with them, even if they were not engaged in work, one Spanish worker interviewed in the research mentioned that he was able to bring his partner who is South American to Scotland with him. These circumstances highlight the flexibility experienced by EU workers exercising their free movement rights.
A small number of workers described coming together as a small group of friends, which was beneficial as they could share living expenses and travel around Scotland together. Nonetheless, some seasonal and temporary migrant workers had travelled to Scotland alone in search of work and to support their families.
This has important implications for future policy when considering there will be limited opportunities for family migration in proposed routes for temporary and seasonal workers outside of agriculture.
In terms of future plans, there was similar variation in motivations. For those working in seasonal employment, there was an expressed motivation to return home after the season is over. One Romanian seasonal worker had met someone in his place of work – a Scottish team leader - and so planned to prolong his stay. Other seasonal migrant workers left the decision open-ended and said they would wait and see, in this respect they differ from conventional seasonal migrant workers. Others mentioned that as their family is back home and they don't speak English they will not want to move to Scotland, so they will return back home although they have the option of finding other similar temporary employment opportunities. Some temporary migrant workers had to return back home for their studies.
"I came here for a new experience, if I enjoy the system then I might stay. I came by myself for six months but if I will stay longer then my partner and dog will come too" (Seasonal migrant worker)
Working seasonally was desirable for some migrant workers as they did not express a motivation to permanently reside in Scotland and so wanted to undertake a high intensity of work for a short-term period. For others, this form of employment was suitable as they were initially looking for a new experience, and to try a form of employment with a pathway or option to full-term employment or stay in Scotland.
In these respects there are some differences between temporary/seasonal migrant employment compared to precarity found in the labour market, more generally. Importantly, these arrangements are reported to fit around the preferences of the migrant worker – the work itself is not precarious but concentrated over a period of time in which fixed-term employment opportunities flow. Broadly speaking, the arrangements are suitable for those who want to return back to their home country after the season is completed. This was not true however for the entire sample, as for those in temporary employment including casual or zero-hours arrangements, there was a desire to have more secure arrangements or guaranteed hours.
More generally, it should be noted that the availability of seasonal/temporary employment is opportunistic for the employer, and there are mixed views in terms of the benefits of this type of employment reported by migrant workers themselves. There is mixed feedback in terms of their ability to develop skills and generate income, particularly given the weakness of the pound.
Finding seasonal/temporary work was described as relatively easy, particularly when compared to the difficulty of finding employment in their home country. Seasonal migrant workers cited a range of ways in which they found seasonal/ temporary employment opportunities including through referrals from friends/family, recruitment agencies and fairs and by going directly into hotels, bars, restaurants to find work.
"If you are keen and interested in a job then they will give you a chance" (Temporary migrant worker)
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 – in effect working for free.
Seasonal and temporary migrant workers had obtained a National Insurance number for employment and mentioned that the recruitment agency or a friend/family member had assisted them in completing the documentation for this. Workers mentioned that it takes time to obtain a National Insurance number so you can often get employment while in the process of applying for one.
The Canadian temporary worker mentioned that it took one month to obtain a National Insurance number upon arriving in Scotland, and queried why it was not included in the process of applying for a work visa.
Some workers, however, mentioned that they did not have documentation and they were advised by their employer that they did not need one - they told me I wouldn't need a taxation number". One Latvian temporary worker described that he had previously worked in a car wash when he was "undocumented" and that meant that he was paid less than the minimum wage. As a result of his treatment he described the car wash industry as a "dirty sector".
One seasonal migrant worker discussed that she had found an employment opportunity through social media at a hotel working from 4pm – 12am, 7 days per week over the Summer period. The employment opportunity was offered in exchange for accommodation and meals at the hotel. The worker was also advised that she does not need to apply for a National Insurance number as she would not be paid for the work. Reflecting on the opportunity, she mentioned that "it would have been nice to have been paid money but I enjoyed my time, everyone was very friendly and they would invite me to join for drinks with them". For this seasonal migrant worker, the motivation for living/working in Scotland was to gain a new experience as opposed to a financial reason, however it highlights that there is potential for exploitation on this basis as she is in effect working on average 56 hrs per week unpaid.
Another similar experience was reported by a temporary migrant worker who mentioned that before taking up temporary employment he had come to Scotland on a volunteering opportunity advertised on Facebook for packing clothes in a warehouse. He described it as a "full-time job" as it involved working seven days a week, 9-5pm, and mentioned that conditions at times were not safe as he cut himself with glass in the workspace.
These experiences hihlight that issues can arise from blurred lines in relation to work flowing from experience/exchange/volunteering opportunities.
In both instances, the workers reported that they were unaware of any mechanisms to report problems. While these anecdotes may not be specific to the migrant experience, they do highlight that seasonal and temporary migrant workers are less likely to know their rights or options for recourse.
There were similarly varying experiences of obtaining employment contracts, stemming from the often informal arrangements with employers. For those who had employment contracts there were reassurances regarding hours per week, pay rates etc. Some had minimum guaranteed hours but for those in temporary employment, hours tended to fluctuate. Overall, seasonal and temporary migrant workers expressed a desire to get as many hours as possible.
"I never got a paper contract because they said it's company policy…I don't mind as long as they keep up their end of the bargain and give me the hours I need…it's never been under 35 hours". (Seasonal migrant worker)
The variation in hours differed by sector, for instance in the fishing sector, seasonal migrant workers mentioned that their hours differed depending on the fish that was caught on the day, moreover, in the hospitality sector, hours differed by the number of bookings made by guests. Factory workers tended to have more consistency in terms of hours.
Most workers worked 5 or 6 days a week, there was a view among those working 6 days a week that they had little time to recover or rest outside of work. This view was most strongly felt among those undertaking physically strenuous work such as factory work. To illustrate this point, at the time of the fieldwork, some migrant workers expressed that they were keen to prolong the interviews/discussions so they did not have to go back to work outside in the cold weather. The hours worked by seasonal and temporary migrant workers tended to be over 40 hours which is similar to the findings observed within the quantitative research.
"We don't have any time to socialise – just work and then go home to rest" (Seasonal migrant worker)
"My schedule is rough, sometimes there is no time for a break" (Temporary migrant worker)
Workers were commonly paid minimum wage for their work, and there were mixed views regarding whether this was adequate compensation for their efforts. For some workers there was the perception that this was sufficient when compared to what they would receive in their home country, however for others there was a view that "minimum wage means minimum effort" and that this led them to feel undervalued in their roles. Furthermore there was a view, particularly among those working in the hospitality sector, that any additional payments such as tips were not shared with seasonal/temporary migrant workers and that they were not compensated for working anti-social hours.
"We finish at 4 am at times and we don't get anything above the minimum wage for this" (Temporary migrant worker)
For those sending money back home, there was discussion of the weakness of the pound which is affecting the exchange rate when converting money.
"You now only get 5 RON (Romanian Leu) for a pound" (Temporary migrant worker)
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.
"Once or twice I have been underpaid, mistakes happen but it's really annoying as they don't pay me the money back until the next month" (Seasonal migrant worker)
Most workers did not have sick pay protections, and so were "very careful not to get ill". For a minority of participants who did have sick pay provision in their contract discussed that this was not something that was relevant to them – there is a younger age profile of seasonal and temporary migrant workers so healthcare is not a focus for these workers.
For those who had accommodation provided, this was seen to be beneficial as this was cheaper than having to stay in rented accommodation, there was also the added benefit of not having to source suitable accommodation. One temporary migrant worker mentioned that he found the accommodation provided by his employer to be uncomfortable as the heating was only on for one hour per day.
Among migrant workers who did not have accommodation provided through their work, there were difficulties reported in terms of finding housing. There was also the perception that landlords did not necessarily want to let to migrant workers.
Some seasonal migrant workers described living in "rough neighbourhoods" as it is difficult to know where is the right place to stay and the main search factor for them is price, therefore they discussed that they lack the local knowledge to identify safe neighbourhoods for accommodation. This was most acutely felt for those living in small towns as social issues were felt to be more pronounced among these settings. One Polish seasonal worker reported that she was convinced that she was living next to a drug dealer, and that this was leading to wider anti-social behaviour in the area close to her home. She was unaware of Scottish housing regulations related to reporting issues with her landlord as well as notice periods to leave the accommodation, although as she was only resident for six months, she didn't want to go through the rigmarole of finding alternative accommodation.
One employer provided transport to workers in buses which was viewed favourably by seasonal migrant workers, however workers reported that there was only one town from which the buses run. This was perceived to be unfair as this led to unequal provision among the workforce particularly as bus fairs can be expensive at around £4 each way which is half of the hourly rate of pay.
There were varying experiences of training and development received by staff – broadly speaking, the key health and safety or alcohol handling training had been provided to workers. Beyond the basic training and some shadowing on the first few days of employment there was a common perception that workers were left to "sink or swim". Having said that, seasonal migrant workers described that the work that they were undertaking was routine and manual, and therefore they would not necessarily have benefited from a high level of training or supervision. Migrant workers on agency contracts in particular reported to have received no training within the work contexts they were placed.
It is important to note that rules related to temporary employment require equal access to amenities and facilities among temporary and permanent staff; it is clear that comparative to permanent workers, temporary and seasonal migrant workers received limited opportunities for training.
One Hungarian worker that was working as a maintenance man in a hotel described that safety procedures were not followed in his work. An example of this was that he had been asked to repair a storage tank by himself and felt that he was exposed to chemicals in the process.
"Sometimes I am doing things on my head, I can say no but then I might get blacklisted by the managers" (Temporary migrant worker)
Relationships at work
There were mixed views regarding relationships at work.
For some seasonal migrant workers there was the view that there are positive workplace relations as a vast proportion of the staff are also migrant workers. In some workplaces, most staff were migrant workers so they could communicate in their own language and there was no differential treatment between staff. This is often linked to workforce practices whereby some managers segment their workforce, so certain groups of staff mix with each other. Having said that, there was reportedly no hierarchy between migrant and non-migrant staff as there were managers, team leaders and supervisors who were permanent/settled migrant workers.
"Hospitality is based on foreign people". (Temporary migrant worker)
"It's a multicultural job so there is never an issue to work together" (Seasonal migrant worker)
However, some seasonal and temporary migrant workers cited experiences where managers had at times been rude with them. Under these circumstances there was a recognition that the work environment can be stressful which can lead to disagreements or people speaking rudely with one another. One Bulgarian seasonal worker had the perception that staff within managerial positions within factories have worked their way up and are poorly educated and can thus mistreat migrant workers and speak down to them. In contrast, he had the view that migrant workers despite working in elementary occupations are often degree-educated. This reflects, that perceptions work in both directions.
Another factor that was seen to cause problems among staff was competition for opportunities. One example of this is that within a shellfish factory there was mention of a competitive environment to get the more expensive consignments as workers would get paid a little extra for shipments to China and Korea. This could lead to disagreements over allocations of shellfish among the team.
While it was not common for workers to express that they were generally treated differently from local or permanent staff, there was one example where this was mentioned by a seasonal migrant worker. He held the view that he was treated differently than local permanent staff as they are provided lunch by the company during their shift, while he is not, despite working 12 hour long shifts.
Aside from relations with staff, there was a view that rudeness or mistreatment can arise from customers, an anecdote is shown below.
"A guest ordered a bottle of wine, and I asked her which wine she wanted. She then complained about me saying that I didn't understand because I don't speak good English" (Seasonal migrant worker)
More generally, there was a sense among seasonal and temporary migrant workers, regardless of whether they faced workplace issues, that they did not have the courage to "rock the boat" and challenge management decisions. There was a sense that because you don't know your rights, there is always an uncertainty about how raising an issue might impact your shift patterns or cause management to delegate you more onerous tasks.
"If I speak up then they won't call me back for work, I don't want to be seen as a clever cookie" (Temporary migrant worker)
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 unemployment 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 – these can be difficult conversations to have.
Life in Scotland
There were mixed experiences of social life in Scotland among seasonal and temporary migrant workers. For those working in employment with a high density of migrant workers there was ample opportunities to make social bonds beyond the workplace.
There was also discussion of social activities organised by the employer as well as a buddy system which helped to ecourage workers to make friends in certain contexts. However, some workers were not able to avail the organised events as they mentioned that they would take place at the end of the year when all the seasonal workers had gone.
"There is only a Christmas party, but we are all gone at that time" (Seasonal migrant worker)
Furthermore, some seasonal and temporary migrant workers described that their work schedule would not permit them to socialise as the work itself was strenuous and more generally they found it difficult to make friends with locals beyond the "small talk" that you may have in social spaces. English language ability was seen as a key barrier to speaking with locals and feeling part of a community. There were varying degrees to which this was seen as an issue as some migrant workers had come to Scotland with a financial motivation and others for lesiure and experience.
"I feel like an outsider, Scottish people are friendly to speak to but no one invites you to any party or for a coffee…it's hard to make friends" (Temporary migrant worker)
"I am free one weekend a month so there is no time for social" (Seasonal migrant worker)
"Takes longer to express yourself so difficult to fully integrate – "I know what they might be thinking when speaking with me". (Temporary migrant worker)
Seasonal and temporary migrant workers rarely expressed any difficulty in accessing local services as they expressed little need to access services such as healthcare or social security and if they needed to do so would have someone within their workplace or a friend or family member who could advise them accordingly. However, there was some discussion around the difficulty in opening up a bank account as there is a great deal of paperwork required for this. A lesser mentioned point was that local shops close down before the seasonal migrant workers finish work which makes it difficult to get supplies in certain rural settings.
There were small observations made by those residing in urban areas regarding a lack of facilities such as public toilets, recycling facilities and a high visibility of homeless people on the streets.
For a small number of migrant workers, church was important for them, however it was felt that some "orthodox traditions" that are followed in their native country were not followed in the churches in Scotland which meant that they could not enjoy the full experience of their religiosity.
On balance few seasonal and temporary migrant workers had experienced racism, however, there were a small number of important examples cited. There was specific mention of difficulty acquiring accommodation as there was a perception that Scottish landlords do not want to rent to migrants. Furthermore, some workers reported that they had experienced belittling behaviour as a result of their accent or self-reported poor English language skills. One temporary migrant worker mentioned that he has to travel home from work late at night on the bus and has experienced verbal abuse, his perception was that this was because of his accent and clothing.
Views on Brexit
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. At the time of the interviews there was also some uncertainty around whether Brexit would go-ahead or be cancelled altogether.
"Not our place to say whether Brexit should be or not – we are guests here" (Seasonal migrant worker)
"There is a lot of difficult and false information so it's hard to keep track" (Temporary migrant worker)
Overall, however, there was a view that the pragmatic demand for migrant labour would continue among businesses after the policy had been implemented and that would mean that they could continue to find employment in Scotland/the UK.
Furthermore, for those who spoke English there was a view that if circumstances change then their language skills would be a passport to allow them to live and work in other countries. Indeed for some workers there was the view that "if we are not welcome in a country then we will not stay".
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. This meant that workers would be concerned as to whether they would be able to continue to secure employment opportunities in Scotland.
In a similar regard, the decreased value of the pound was discussed as it was seen to lower the value of the remittance that workers' were sending home to their families. Furthermore, there was a view that if the cost of living increases in Scotland after Brexit, they would be able to save less money from their work. Both of these factors, lessened the attractiveness of working in Scotland in seasonal and temporary employment opportunities.
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