NFU Scotland has issued a rallying call for people to assist on-farm ahead of the soft fruit season starting in earnest in the next few weeks.
Fruit picking will reach a peak in high summer ahead of the main season for vegetable harvesting in the autumn. The Union would encourage those interested in filling positions to come forward and help ensure that supplies of nutritious and tasty Scottish soft fruit and vegetables are available to the nation during the COVID-19 crisis.
Due to the global nature of the pandemic, growers across Scotland remain concerned that it will be extremely difficult to recruit the 10,000 workers that are required annually to undertake seasonal horticultural work.
Having launched its employment-matching service on 20 March, NFU Scotland has seen unprecedented levels of visits to its web page and has already successfully matched a number of Scottish growers to available workers.
HMRC this week confirmed in updated guidance that individuals who have been furloughed are able to take up alternative employment on a temporary basis during the period of their furlough if contractually enabled to do so by their employer.
NFU Scotland is taking the opportunity to continue promote its recruitment service to any individual who may be out of work or on a temporary furlough period to take up well-paid work in the countryside which will help in the national response to COVID-19.
In addition to this industry-led initiative, NFU Scotland is urging UK Government to engage with all other available options to fill the projected worker shortfalls.
On 30 March, the EU Commission published a communication relating to the free movement of critical mobile workers, including seasonal agricultural workers. This initiative, if applied in the UK, could provide significant relief to Scottish growers who are facing severe worker shortages with the potential to lose significant amounts of crop that may go unpicked. NFU Scotland has discussed this in private with the UK Government in recent days.
NFU Scotland’s Horticultural Working Group Chairman, James Porter, who farms in Angus said
Behind the wonderful produce that comes from Scottish farms is a dedicated and skilled workforce. In any typical year, 10,000 workers will travel to Scotland from overseas to undertake seasonal work. Due to the global health crisis, growers are naturally concerned that there will be a significant shortfall in workers.
So that we can ensure that Scotland’s fine offering of soft fruit and vegetables gets into the food supply chain to be enjoyed across the country, we need all hands to the pump if we are to ensure harvesting, packing and distribution can continue.
The initial feedback from NFU Scotland’s employment-matching service, launched three weeks ago, is hugely encouraging and I am delighted that it has already proven successful in matching individuals who had found themselves out of work due to the public health crisis with essential employment in our countryside.
With the clarification from HMRC this week that workers furloughed from their usual employment will be able to take up other work on a temporary basis, I hope we might encourage them to view our initiative as an excellent way for furloughed individuals to top up their wages also.
However successful our recruitment initiative is, it remains extremely unlikely that it will be able to recruit the sheer volume of workers that are needed in Scotland during the high seasons for fruit and vegetable picking. As such, NFU Scotland is calling upon the UK Government to ensure its participation in the EU Commission’s guidelines which ensure the exchange of seasonal agricultural workers between member states so that critical harvesting, planting and tending can be carried out.