NFU Scotland has urged the government to provide “urgent clarity” around access to foreign fruit & veg pickers in 2021 or risk the closure of close to half of the Scottish horticulture sector.
With the deadline for a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal little more than three months away and no movement from Whitehall on extending the Seasonal Workers Pilot from 10,000 non-UK workers to the required 70,000, NFUS this week wrote to MPs to warn that a lack of action could be “highly damaging” to the horticultural industry in the region.
According to a recent survey of its horticultural members, the Scottish industry body found more than 40% would be forced to cease operating if they were unable to recruit enough pickers.
And with the lead-in time for recruiting seasonal labour said to be around nine months, it said time was rapidly running out.
“Without urgent clarity on the UK government’s intentions for the future of the Seasonal Workers Scheme, planting and investment decisions cannot be taken, and the sector could face severe productivity and financial challenges in the 2021 season and beyond,” said chair of NFUS specialist crops committee, James Porter.
“The industry’s response during the pandemic has shown how vital a reliable, experienced overseas workforce, with a high level of returnees, is to these sectors. For many years, growers have been unable to fill vacancies from the domestic workforce, and this will continue to be the case as horticulture – an innovative, high-value sector of UK agriculture – invests in its future expansion.”
Around 10,000 of the 70,000-80,000 seasonal workers who work for UK growers each year are employed in Scotland, according to NFUS. It added all of the industry was reliant on foreign labour to some extent.
In response, a spokesman for Defra said the government department was aware of the importance of seasonal workers to growers.
“Seasonal workers are essential to bring in the harvest every year, which is why we are continuing to work hard to ensure our farmers and growers have the support and workforce they need,” the spokesman said.
“Whilst the UK prepares to leave the EU, Defra is working closely with the Home Office to ensure there is a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce as part of future immigration policy.”
NFUS’s announcement was the latest in a long line of warnings from the UK food and drink sector about the damage a lack of seasonal labour could cause.
Earlier this month, MPs heard there was a “deep sense of foreboding” over the impact 2021’s immigration rules would have on the food industry. Meanwhile, growing bodies have already experienced difficulties with getting enough workers due to the coronavirus pandemic and the run-up to last year’s Halloween Brexit deadline.