Posted on Apr 24, 2014
The farmers of rural Perth have recently been discussing the negative impact that tough immigration rules are having on their industry. The Australian Farm Weekly magazine carries reports of discussions in Perth, Western Australia about how Chinese agricultural investors have concerns that they cannot obtain visas for non Australian farm managers, livestock workers or technical trade experts to run their farms in Australia.
Given that Thorntons have been advising farmers and rural businesses in Scotland for over 150 years, I was wondering how the situation in Scotland and across the rest of the UK compared to that of Australia.
When discussing the matter with the land and rural business team, it became clear that changes to the UK immigration rules relating to the agricultural sector have overall had a negative effect on the various industries within the sector. In certain parts of the UK, labour shortages have become chronic leading to reduced production levels for businesses who are struggling to find suitably qualified staff.
For instance, the scrapping of the Season Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) hit the north east of Scotland particularly badly. The scheme was in operation for over 60 years, though in later years changes to the regulations made it much more restrictive. It has now been scrapped, leaving food and vegetable growers (especially in the north east of Scotland) facing damaging labour shortages The local authority areas of Angus and Perth & Kinross had amongst the highest level of SAWS visa holders anywhere in the UK with Fife and Aberdeenshire also having significantly more holders than anywhere else in the UK. In 2012, those 4 Scottish local authority areas contained a staggering 17.5% of the UK's entire SAWS visa population and there are indications that the closure of the successful scheme is now causing strains to a sector which, over the years became so reliant upon it.
The Sector Based Scheme which operated fairly efficiently in the food processing sector also closed without a replacement scheme though the sheep shearing industry has had a bit more luck. The government was forced to implement a new sheep shearing concession when tough new immigration rules essentially excluded the experienced sheep shearers from Australia and New Zealand that the industry has historically relied upon to attend to Britain's 25 million or so sheep. This raised serious animal welfare concerns as the industry struggled to cope with shearing season. Under severe pressure from the sector and the media, the government allowed for a concession that now allows experienced shearers to enter the UK between 1st April and 30 June each year for the shearing season.
There is also a more fundamental problem for the sector with the general migration route for skilled workers. A view has been taken that most agricultural jobs are not at a high enough skill level to warrant recruitment from outside the EU and it is now impossible to recruit farmers, farm managers, skilled ghillies, herd managers, forest managers, agricultural machinists or chick sexers from outside the EU. It may be of little comfort to the industry to know that UK employers can still however recruit musicians, ballet dancers and chefs from outside the EU as those jobs are still amenable to sponsorship under the Tier 2 (General) scheme.
So, it appears that the agricultural sector in Scotland is facing similar issues to the sector in Australia. Restrictive immigration policies deny the sector the labour it requires to meet consumer demands. NFU Scotland estimates that 1 in 10 of all Scottish jobs are dependent on agriculture and given the value of the agricultural sector to our national economy, the concerns of the sector when it comes to labour shortages and immigration issues ought to be addressed.
Jamie Kerr is a Partner at Thorntons Solicitors and has been accredited by the Law Society of Scotland as a specialist in immigration law. He works closely with the firm's land and rural business team and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org