‘Our businesses are desperate for foreign workers’
Two Scottish business owners will be looking at Tuesday’s jobs figures with interest.
Fruit farmer Iain Brown is days away from his strawberry harvest when he needs about 100 fruit pickets at his farm in Pittenweem, Fife.
Hotelier and hospitality businessman Stephen Leckie is about to enter the busy summer tourist season with hundreds of unfilled vacancies.
For these two people-based industries, low unemployment rates are bad news.
Both have significant staffing issues, but are not on an equal playing field.
One of them has access to migrant workers, the other does not.
Stephen Leckie owns Crieff Hydro and several other hospitality businesses.
At that one venue, he currently has 60 vacancies with a lack of housekeeping and cleaning staff causing the biggest problems.
His Glencoe hotel has 70 vacancies and finding chefs has become nearly impossible.
Across the business he has 1,800 posts to fill.
This means bars and restaurants are limited in opening times and sales of food and drink are down.
His business is struggling massively.
He said: “We still face significant staff shortages in this business and every other business that I speak to.
“Here we should have 900 staff, but we have 840 staff. We need food and beverage staff, chefs, frontline staff, reception, housekeeping staff and self-catering staff.
“I’ve heard of four businesses in Perth closing down in the last two weeks alone just because of the shortage of staff. They can’t open the doors.
“Then if you have enough to keep open then we need a restriction on menus or opening times which means you can then do some kind of business but you can’t perform in the way you would like to”
He said this puts a stop to reinvesting profits back into the business.
“What we need from the government is to release the working visas, help the European staff who left in the early part of the lockdown return to Scotland and work for us where they want to work hard for us.”
“It’s as simple as that and it is the same request we’ve been asking for for more than a year now but it is throttling our businesses and restricting our ability to grow.
He added: “Tourism is looking good for Scotland but some businesses can’t open more than four days a week.”
At Easter Grangemuir Farm in Pittenweem, Iain Brown has an advantage. His industry has access to eastern European workers through the UK government’s seasonal worker visa scheme.
But, costing £300 per worker and only guaranteed until 2024, it is still causing issues.
Mr Brown said: “Labour is very important for harvesting fruit and vegetables in Scotland and up until Brexit we had free movement of labour and it was quite easy for farms to access and recruit from Bulgaria and Romania to work on our farms.
“Now we have to use the seasonal worker scheme which does work but it needs the government to commit to it longer term.”
He said local staff were hard to recruit because unemployment is at a 40-year low and people do not want a seasonal job.
“The UK government have committed to the 2024 visa scheme but we don’t know any further than that,” he added.
“Plant commitments have been made, investments into infrastructure have been made and we need to know longer term where these workers are going to come from.
“One thing we do know is our traditional labour force from eastern Europe is becoming less. Each year we get fewer and fewer returnees coming back.”
Mr Brown said people were questioning their commitment to the industry, believing the risk was becoming “too high for the reward”.
“Prices have gone up on the retail shelf, but those prices are not coming back to farm gate level,” he said.
“We need the governments to speak to retailers because the policy they have in place isn’t supporting our domestic producers. Retailers are bringing in more imported material from Europe and that could result in a food security problem.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “Leaving the EU enabled us to introduce a points-based immigration system and we want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK’s domestic workforce instead of relying on cheap labour from abroad.
“We work closely with the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure our system delivers for the UK and works in the best interests of the economy.”
The spokesperson added that many roles within the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors – including chefs and hotel, catering and bar managers – were eligible under the points-based system and that firms could hire workers through the immigration system if they met the required English language and salary thresholds and were sponsored by a registered Home Office sponsor.