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Welcome, Mr Porter. I do not know if you have appeared before a Committee before, but please enjoy the session as the Committee members gather evidence. You will get questions from non-Scottish Members as well. Will you introduce yourself formally for the record?
Ahoy, Mr Chairman, yonder! I am James Porter. I farm on the east coast of Angus—a mixed farm of beef cows, potatoes and cereals. We also have 100 acres of soft fruit, which in the main season employs about 300 seasonal workers. We have quite a large permanent staff to back that up. I am also chair of the horticulture committee of the National Farmers Union of Scotland and vice-chair of Ringlink Scotland.
I am someone non-Scottish, to start with. Do you have concerns about Scotland’s agricultural and associated sectors’ ability to recruit the labour they will need post BrexitQ 280?
Yes, we do indeed. In fact, we have already seen shortages over the last two years of about 10% to 15%. We are seriously concerned about the situation currently. We have, as I said, 300 seasonal workers lined up to come over, and many of them return year on year—about 70% are returnees. As many of them have said, any kind of restriction that is put in place will encourage them to go elsewhere. There are lots of jobs available in Germany, Holland and elsewhere in western Europe.
No. That is generally recognised. In fact, the Migration Advisory Committee report recognises that that labour force is not there. To take Angus, where I am, as an example, there are only 1,400 long-term employed in the county. Angus Soft Fruits, which is the marketing group that I market through, employs about 4,000 people in Angus across 20 growers, so the workforce is not really there. That has been recognised for quite a long time, generally.
Q You said that 70% were returnees. Do you have any other concerns about the 12-month visa, or the £30,000 income threshold that we have been talking about?
Regarding the 12-month visa and so on, I think you are talking about things that are in the Bill. I have more immediate concerns, and I can tell you what they are and then come back to that, if you will allow me.
The first thing is the seasonal agricultural workers scheme allowing for 2,500 workers this year. NFU Scotland has long argued that that is not nearly enough, and that it needs to be at least 10,000. We are very concerned that that should happen immediately, because we know we are going to be short. About three or four weeks ago, I spoke to Pro-Force, which is one of the accredited labour providers, about how things are going. It is employing people to pick daffodils in Cornwall, and it has already filled the 1,250 places—it gets given half of them—and is struggling to find EU workers to come in and do that. Added to that is the uncertainty about where we are currently with leaving the EU. We really feel that the number of places ought to be put up to 10,000 immediately as a contingency.
Secondly, if we leave the EU without a deal, there is currently in place—I think I have got this right—a three-month rule, so workers can come over for three months without any application, after which they will have to apply for an extension that will let them stay for up to three years. Three months does not bear any relation to what is actually happening on the ground. Most of our workers come over in the early spring—it is probably earlier in England; I am not quite sure when they kick off—and go through the whole season, and then go home for the winter. We feel that the three-month rule will be very obstructive. I have been told that if the slightest impediment is put in the way of the guys and ladies who are coming over to pick fruit for us, they will decide to go elsewhere. We feel that the three-month rule should be extended to 12 months, and then whatever comes after that. We are in a very precarious position. Everything I am hearing on the ground is telling me that if the slightest hindrance is put in their way, they will go elsewhere. I will let someone else speak for a bit.
You mentioned the very low unemployment rates in Angus. They are broadly similar, and perhaps even lower, in Aberdeenshire, just north of you—where I am from, obviously. Can anything be done to make agriculture or horticulture more attractive to British workers from elsewhere in the UKQ ?
There are two or three problems. This is seasonal work, and most people in the UK are looking for full-time work, not seasonal work. The nature of the job really requires you to be on the farm at that point. We have very early starts in the morning, so it does not marry in naturally. The other thing is that it is quite a physical job. No one is pretending it is an easy job; it is quite hard work, and I do not think it is necessarily for everyone.
Q That was a supplementary question to my other question, but my main question is this. We heard on Tuesday repeated accusations from witnesses that some short-term contracts—agriculture was mentioned specifically—run the risk of being exploitative. Can you give us some indication of the work that the National Farmers Union and your members do to make sure that is not the case?
All the fruit and veg farms that supply supermarkets are Sedex registered and audited by the Sedex members ethical trade audit, SMETA. That is a pretty rigorous audit that looks at wages, accommodation, conditions and so on, and it is recognised globally. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority also monitors very closely what is going on. You are allowed to employ directly from the EU as a producer, but if you use an agency, it has to be an accredited agency. If you are discovered not to be using an accredited agency or not to be complying with the requirements of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, you will be de-listed from supermarkets immediately and subject to the full force of the law.
We have quite a good track record from the last few years of not exploiting our workers. It is generally the case across the industry that most growers have a lot of returnees, and I think that is a sign that the relationship is symbiotic. I am very comfortable with where we are on that. I am happy to look at other ways of improving that oversight if that is what is needed to satisfy people.
I feel I ought to answer the earlier question about the 12-month rule, because I have not answered it. I am afraid it does not make any sense to me. I cannot think of any employment situation where you would employ someone for 12 months, train them up, show them the ropes and then they have to go away for 12 months.
On the £30,000 limit, I do not think the average wage in Scotland is £30,000, so I do not think that is a realistic number. We employ a lot of Romanian and Polish-speaking people. Generally, we have always promoted through the ranks, because otherwise there is a language barrier and because they have the experience of working on a job. Whether it is pruning blueberries, trimming strawberries or whatever, they know that job inside out. If you try to bring in someone from outside who has had no experience of that job, it does not really work. Our middle management level would come under that £30,000 limit, so it does not stack up. In fact, I think abattoir vets do not even earn £30,000, and I think an extremely high percentage—it might be 80%—are from—
You said that you felt that the £30,000 earnings threshold was not a realistic number. You have spoken about the temporary agricultural workers scheme, but could you give me a sense of what the impact of a £30,000 threshold would be more generally across the agricultural and associated sectors? Is it really fair to describe people who earn less than that as low skilledQ ?
I do not like “low skilled” as a term. I told the MAC in Edinburgh a couple of years ago that I did not like it. I understand what they are trying to get at, but although you do not need an academic degree to do a lot of these jobs, they require quite a high level of skill and experience to learn. I prefer the term “manually skilled”. That might be a better one.
If you look across agriculture in general, I do not know the exact numbers, but there are a lot of people working in agriculture from the EU right now who would be earning less than £30,000. It is not just my industry. Perhaps you are not all from rural constituencies, so you are not aware of where agriculture is or the details on soft fruit and veg. Is it worth giving you a little bit of background on it?
If you take soft fruit, wages in soft fruit have gone up from £3.60 in 1999 to £8.21 currently, and they are due to go up again in April to around £8.51, I think. Our top 10% to 15% of pickers will earn £10 to £12 an hour. They will get holiday pay and they will get overtime after 48 hours—of time and a half, not time and a quarter—because we have the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board. They pay national insurance. They pay tax. To me, they are a big asset to the country as a whole. We struggle a little bit with this idea that they are not contributing. They are contributing, although they might well be below the £30,000 limit.
Wages have gone up significantly in the last 15 to 20 years. If I look back to that initial period, wages were 22% of turnover, but they are currently 48%. The reason for that is that we are not getting paid a penny more for a punnet of strawberries than we were 25 years ago. It was £2 a punnet when I came home from university in 1993, and it is still £2 a punnet, so we are caught between a rock and a hard place. I really do not begrudge these people—it is about 50:50 men and women—their coin, because they have earned it; I used to pick strawberries and it is hard work. But it is very hard for us to keep innovating and developing our industry and increasing our yields. We cannot go on like that forever. It is very difficult.
We spend a lot of money on innovation. We are not shy of spending money on polytunnels. Most of our crops are now on tabletops, which is a significant capital investment. We are now starting to put in gutters, which will recycle and reuse water. We have spent a lot of money on trying to reduce pesticides. We use a lot of natural predators and natural biopesticides. We are doing a lot of things to improve, invest and innovate. Yields have gone up from 10 tonnes a hectare on average to around 22 tonnes a hectare now. It is difficult. I do not think it is fair to call us low productivity or low investment, or to say that we are just sitting on our hands and not bothering to try to improve the situation or make things more efficient. We really are.
Can I ask what information your members have had and what knowledge they have about any checks that they will be expected to make on EU nationals’ right to work after BrexitQ ?
That is certainly not clear in my head at the moment. My current understanding is that if a deal is reached, nothing changes until 2021. Is that right? If there is a deal, nothing changes, as far as I am aware. If there is not a deal, my understanding is that currently there will be a three-month rule and then people will have to apply to stay.
Q Your understanding is that they will be able to work in the first three months without any documentation, but then they will need to apply.
Q How will your members know whether somebody is in their first three months or whether they have already been here for three months working for another employer?
Q Does that worry your members, or would it worry them if they thought about it?
If I had crop to pick and someone came, unless I was compelled to make background checks, I do not see why it should be up to me to try to find out whether they were in their first three months of employment.
Q Your members do not make background checks as things stand, because people are here under free movement rules.
Q But you do not need to check their right to work after that.
Most of my questions have been answered, but I have a couple of short ones. The Bill seeks to end free movement. Is it the NFUS position that continuing free movement would be a better course of action?Q
The MAC report—it is not just me saying this—recognises that there is no negative effect on wages from free movement. It is pretty much neutral; people coming in are not forcing down wages. The MAC also recognises that there is a shortage of labour in agriculture particularly, and it suggests that there should be a seasonal workers scheme to make up for that. The MAC recognises that we need labour coming in from abroad, but it still thinks it should be difficult for us to employ that labour. Yes, I could not agree more. The NFU position is clear: we believe there should be ongoing free movement of labour.
Q Finally, some of the witnesses in Tuesday’s session were concerned about the prospects of exploitation in a minority of cases because, if workers were tied to a particular employer or were towards the end of a visa that lasted for only a year or less, there was limited prospect of anyone else taking them on. One solution might be to have a multi-year visa so people at least have the opportunity to come back for a future season somewhere different.
That sounds quite sensible. We had the SAW scheme previously, and we worked with it until it was ended when the EU accession countries came in. The agencies are quite closely on top of communicating with the people they place on farms, but I can understand that if someone was compelled to stay on one farm, it might be quite difficult for them to speak out if they did not have alternatives. I am sure there may be ways of trying to make that simpler. Perhaps if they received a visa to work in agriculture and were not compelled to stay in one place, that would give them a bit more freedom if they were not happy where they were.
Going back to tier 2 visas, at the moment the fee to recruit a tier 2 worker is more than £1,000. If that type of system went forward, would that present any difficulties, or does that seem a reasonable level?Q
We are working to a pretty tight budget, so I would not be over-keen to pay that. It does not make sense to me. I can understand if there were rational reasons for putting in restrictions to labour, such as a ready and willing labour pool in the UK that was able to do those jobs, but that simply is not there. I do not understand the rationale for adding costs on an industry where things are already tight. There is no doubt about that.
I think I have quite clearly illustrated how much more we have paid over the last 20 years—it has gone up significantly in the last five. It is all very well saying you have to pay more. We are paying more but we are not getting paid any more for what we produce, and we have no prospect of being paid more. The alternative is to say, “We will just export that production and we will pay someone £2 a day in Morocco or somewhere to grow it.” I do not think that is productive.
Q You have been very clear about the investment and innovation that have gone into the sector, with table-top growing, etc. How far off do you think mechanised picking of soft fruit is?
It could be a little like nuclear fusion—it might always be five years off, because it is so complicated. One of those robots takes about 10 seconds to pick one strawberry. They are really not quick. There are research and projects ongoing, but certainly, for the near to medium term I do not see it. You have to remember that you might get a strawberry picking machine, but you then have to develop a blueberry one, a raspberry one and a blackberry one. It is not in the near future.
Q If it takes 10 seconds for a robot to pick one strawberry, how many strawberries can a skilled picker pick in 10 seconds? A lot.
We heard from the MAC on Tuesday that they felt that you could make a distinction for agriculture as opposed to other sectors. Do you want to expand, in the three minutes allowed, on why agriculture is special and why we should take steps to make sure it stays that way?
I will just finish quickly the point about technology. It is ongoing and I am sure we will find ways to reduce the number of people we need quite quickly, with robots taking trays away or doing things like that. A lot of other important development is going on to analyse crops and look at crop predictions. But I put that to one side. Agriculture is different because, unlike any other industry, it is 100% reliant on EU labour or seasonal workers from abroad. It is the seasonal nature of that work that makes us particularly like that. Other industries are heavily reliant on that, but none as much as agriculture, particularly soft fruit and veg.
If there are no other questions, I thank our witness very much for the time you have spent with us. If you leave and suddenly think of something else you wish you had got off your chest, we will be pleased to hear from you in writing.