SLAMMING the latest government measures to limit the number of migrant seasonal workers, NFU Scotland has said that DEFRA is 'completely disconnected' from the needs of Scotland's fruit and veg industry.

On Christmas Eve, Defra announced that once again there will only be 30,000 seasonal worker visas made available for the whole of the UK in 2022, with a possible increase by 10,000 if 'necessary'.

Defra claimed that this repeat allocation of 30,000 would ease some of the ongoing concerns around recruiting foreign workers to pick both edible and ornamental crops in the UK – but it stressed that the visa scheme would then be 'tapered down' from 2023, as the government pushed towards a 'high-skilled, high-wage' economy prioritising domestic workers.

NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy responded: “On Christmas eve, the Government has given Scotland’s fruit and veg industry deeply disappointing news about the continuation of the seasonal workers scheme. Keeping the number of visas for 2022 at 30.000, with the potential to increase to 40,000 is the direction the scheme should be going and should have gone further. However, Government plans to then start tapering the scheme down from 2023 shows a complete disconnect from the industry.

“Alongside NFU of England and Wales, we had asked for the number of seasonal visas available to the UK in 2022 to be extended to 55,700," he noted. "For only 30,000 to be offered at the outset in 2022 is a big disappointment. While that is tempered by the potential that visa numbers may rise to 40,000, the Government’s stated intention is to shut down the scheme in the years ahead.

“The seasonal workers visa scheme is an essential route to get the workers needed for fruit, veg and ornamental sectors," insisted Mr Kennedy. "Plans to start dismantling the scheme are a blow and mean some very difficult decisions will have to be made about future production.

“The labour shortages encountered across the whole chain in 2021 – on farm, haulage, processing and packing – coupled with the Government’s late delivery of the seasonal worker pilot scheme led to significant crop losses and millions of pounds of wastage," he said. "Worker shortages on Scottish farms alone were around 20%. Indications are that Scotland will produce a lot less fruit and veg next year and an announcement that will initially keep the number of seasonal visas for the UK static at 30,000 will not improve that picture.

“On the shift to UK staff, the Home Office continues to show huge levels of naivety on the matter despite repeated briefings from NFUS and others," said Mr Kennedy. "Let’s be perfectly clear – failure to secure UK workers is not for want of trying. Our survey of fruit and vegetable members in September 2021 found one Scottish fruit and veg business that had offered 100 contracts of employment to UK applicants; six were accepted and only three turned up to work. cross all businesses who completed the survey in September, the retention rate for EU and other migrant workers was over 80%. The retention rate for UK workers was 32%.

“Our horticultural sector punches way above its weight in Scottish agriculture, accounting for only 1% of our land area but 16% of our agricultural output," he added. "Its ongoing success is wholly dependent on securing the necessary labour. We will survey our members again next year to identify what impact the Government’s decision will have on our hugely important soft fruit, vegetable and ornamental sector in Scotland.”

Whilst acknowledging the sector’s reliance on foreign workers, the UK Government has reiterated its commitment to becoming a 'high-skilled, high-wage' economy and said that more must be done to attract UK workers through offering training, career options, and wage increases, alongside increased investment in automation technology.

Minister for Safe and Legal Migration Kevin Foster said: “The extension to the Seasonal Worker visa route strikes the right balance of supporting the industry while it transitions to employing and prioritising domestic workers.”

Mr Foster said that changes to the route, which has run since 2019, will force companies to pay those using the route a minimum salary to discourage poor conditions.

Environment Secretary George Eustice added: "We had a seasonal worker scheme for agriculture from the time of the second world war and long before we joined the EU. We recognise that agriculture has unique and seasonal requirements for labour at harvest and have listened to our world leading fresh produce industry to understand their needs."

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack added: “The extension of the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme is really good news for Scotland's farming industry, ensuring growers can meet their staff needs while they work to future-proof the agricultural sector. The scheme will help raise wages in the sector which, along with improved conditions, will help make agriculture more attractive to domestic workers."