SEASONAL WORKERS are of 'crucial importance' to Scottish agriculture – and only a 'fit-for-purpose' scheme to allow around 10,000 into Scotland every year will meet that need.

Giving evidence to Westminster's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, NFU Scotland shot down the myth that the shortfall of skilled farm labour can be filled from the domestic workforce.

NFUS and the other farming unions and stakeholders have consistently pressed the UK Government on the need for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, building significantly on the current Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme to ensure that the UK horticulture and ornamental sector can meet its annual requirement for around 70,000 seasonal staff, of which approximately 10,000 workers come to Scottish farms each year, staying in the country to undertake essential work for between six and nine months.

In the NFUS' own survey of its members who are specialist growers, no less than 100% indicated that their businesses were dependent on these non-UK seasonal agricultural workers. The vast majority of survey respondents – 79% – also reported that their efforts to recruit from the local/domestic population in 2020 were not successful. One of Scotland’s largest producer organisations found that its efforts to recruit domestically had a success rate of just 15%.

What save Scottish horticulture's 2020 season was the lifting of travel restrictions in Europe at the right moment to allow workers from the EU to come to Scotland. Despite all the year's problems, around 70% of the Scottish seasonal workforce in 2020 was from the European Economic Area – both returnees and new starts.

NFUS horticulture committee chair, James Porter, who grows soft fruit in Angus, said: “A fully functional, sector specific scheme for non-UK seasonal workers is the only available option to ensure that seasonal labour needs in Scotland are met. Even in this extraordinary year, despite the best efforts of growers to recruit domestically, the facts are that we simply cannot fill seasonal vacancies with workers from the UK population.

“Government must accept that this is not an issue that is confined to the domestic labour market or the future Points-Based Immigration System," said Mr Porter. "It is a sector specific, labour input challenge which requires a specific response from UK Government.

“If a fit-for-purpose seasonal workers scheme is not in place for 2021, then our members have indicated that there will be significant crop loss, with many moving out of seasonal horticulture altogether.

“For any government to allow such a situation to come to pass would, in our view, show complete contempt and disregard for a high-value, innovative, dynamic sector of UK agriculture which supplies the market with fresh, healthy, local produce," he said.

“Such a stance would not match the UK Government’s own stated ambition to be a nation which champions high quality food and agriculture.

“Having campaigned relentlessly on this issue since the outcome of the European referendum, the proposed seasonal worker scheme from UK farming unions has won cross-party support as a common-sense solution to a clear and pressing problem."

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has voiced his support for such a scheme, but a final decision from the UK Government was now 'long overdue', said Mr Porter, and until that decision was made, the future of the horticulture and ornamentals sector would hang in the balance: "We hope that this evidence session will help drive that process forward with urgency as plans for 2021 season are already well advanced.”