Migrant workers 'vital' to success of food and farming industry

The Scottish Government says 70,000 migrant workers are needed to support the UK's agriculture and poultry industries.

Migrant workers are vital to the success of Scotland’s food and farming industry, according to a new report released by the Scottish Government.

Despite an extra 15,000 visas being available through the UK Government’s seasonal workers scheme, a lack of pickers is still a concern.

This year, 45,000 people will be able to work in the agriculture and poultry industries but the Scottish Government claims the sector needs 70,000 migrant workers to meet demand across the whole UK.

Farmers in Scotland say they are struggling to recover from three difficult years of dealing with the impact of Covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine.

Furthermore, soft fruit farmers are producing fewer berries as they feel the squeeze of rising costs and falling profits.

Iain Brown, horticulture chair of NFU Scotland, said, “Labour costs are up, energy costs are up, fertiliser costs are up, everything is up and we’re not getting a sustainable return from the retailer.”

Mr Brown, who farms at Easter Grangemuir in Pittenweem, Fife, produced 750 tonnes of strawberries last year but with margins being cut, he will grow 150 fewer tonnes this year.

“On the back of three difficult years, people are now making decisions this year for 2024 and they are questioning they’re commitment to fruit growing,” he said.

“There are a number of structures with fellow growers that are empty and there’s no production coming from those structures this year. If they’re not making money, they’re not going to grow the crop.”

Mr Brown relies on migrant workers to pick and pack his produce, with pickers returning year-on-year seen as crucial for the industry.

Monika Sawa arrived from Poland last week to pick Scottish strawberries. She has been returning to Easter Grangemuir for the last four years.

“I like working here, I like picking, I like packing. It’s good job,” she said. “I learned to pick here. People are friendly and so I like to come back each year.”

Ms Sawa is one of 9,000 migrant workers needed to work on Scottish farms this year.

A report by the Scottish Government shows they are vital to the agricultural industry. Around half of those working on farms in Scotland are returnees.

On average they’re paid £10.22 an hour, with each spending £62 a week on accommodation.

Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “Particularly in our fruit and vegetable sectors, which aren’t heavily mechanised, we really need that hands-on labour to help us with the harvesting of these crops, so they play a vital role in the sustainability of this really important industry for Scotland.”

Around 70% of seasonal workers at Easter Grangemuir are from Romania and Bulgaria.

Farm manager Nicoleta Descultu is one of them. She has been in Scotland for 12 years and calls the country home.

She oversees workers, with some coming from as far as Uzbekistan.

“We had them last year and they were good workers for us and we would like them to return and we just hope, we send our invitation and just hope for them to return,” she said.

“They already know what our expectations are, we know their expectations, they’ve already been trained, they are already familiar with our environment and what we are doing here.”

Salaries account for 60% of this farm’s costs and while the price of a punnet of berries has gone up, growers are not seeing any more cash for their crops.

They say without a bigger slice of the profits, the amount of fruit planted will continue to be cut – meaning less berries to buy and more empty shelves.

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