Strawberries and cream are a staple of the Scottish summer. But how do fruit and vegetable farms ensure their produce makes it from plant to punnet, and on to the market?

With many farms approaching the picking season, it is useful to understand the options available to those looking to hire overseas workers from both the EU and beyond, including Ukraine, who have previously made up a high proportion of pickers.

Brexit and Covid have undoubtedly impacted the sector’s ability to access labour. A survey in September 2021 found one Scottish fruit and vegetable business that had offered 100 contracts of employment to UK applicants. Of those, just six accepted and only three turned up to work. The retention rate for migrant workers from the EU and elsewhere was over 80%, while the retention rate for UK workers was only 32%.

The UK government first introduced a Seasonal Worker pilot scheme to help address shortages in 2019 and, following a review of the programme, it has amended the requirements placed on the scheme operators and updated the guidance to increase the compliance requirements. The government hopes that changes to the scheme will improve pay and conditions for migrant and resident workers alike.

The revised option for new entrants to this sector is the ‘Temporary Work – Seasonal Worker’ visa, which allows someone to come to the UK to work in horticulture for up to six months, including fruit picking. They’ll need to be over 18 and have a job offer from a licensed sponsor. They’ll also need to have sufficient funds to support themselves (usually at least £1270 unless the sponsor agrees to certify maintenance on their behalf). They will only be able to work for that sponsor while here and they are unable to stay beyond six months or to bring family members with them.

Businesses will need to factor in the cost of applying for a Sponsor Licence of £536 and the hourly rate for staff on the temporary visa scheme. The visa application fee is £259 per person.

There are 30,000 visas available under the scheme this year, but this will be kept under review with the potential to increase by a further 10,000 if necessary. However, this number is likely to reduce in 2023 – so good planning around future staffing needs will be important.

There are fears these additional visas might not be sufficient. NFU Scotland said there had been a shortfall of labour of around 20% in 2021 and that Scotland may produce less fruit and veg in 2022, despite the announcement of the additional visas.

So what other options are available?

Given Ukrainian nationals made up such a high proportion of the seasonal workers previously, it is good to understand the options available for them.

They will have the right to work if they have come here under the Ukrainian family scheme, on the basis of having UK-based family members, or if they are sponsored under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Otherwise, they can be sponsored by a business under the Temporary Seasonal Worker scheme outlined above.

For many businesses, seasonal workers who don’t need to be retrained are an attractive option. EU migrants residing in the UK prior to Brexit may have already obtained status under the EU Settlement Scheme, which allows them to work here in any sector for up to five years initially and they can then settle.

Whether you are a recruitment agency, or a business, it is worth exploring all of these options when hiring staff. Asking the right questions may result in finding that applicants already have the right to work in the UK. If not, it is good to understand the options that are available to them.

This summer will be a trial of the options available and we will see what impact Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have collectively had on the growing season – now and in the future. It will also, critically, help businesses to ensure they harvest the benefits of long-term hiring strategies based on sound planning."

Kathleen O’Donnell is a senior manager at Fragomen, a global immigration firm. She has been working in immigration for 22 years, and advises companies and individuals – including those based in Scotland – on the best routes to bring people to the UK or retain them here.