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The chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee has written to the Home Office and the Foreign Office after hearing evidence that agricultural seasonal workers might not reach Scottish farms in time for harvest season due to a backlog of delayed visa applications.
In an evidence session with the operators of the government’s seasonal agricultural workers pilot scheme held on Tuesday last week, the Scottish Affairs Committee heard there was a risk that Scottish agricultural produce might be left to rot as workers from Ukraine and Moldova face heavily delayed visa processing.
While the Home Office has committed to a three-week turnaround, the committee heard that some visas are taking over 30 days to process.
The operators stated that this delay was partially due to workers finding it difficult to book appointments at the UK visa offices, with the visa office in Moldova only open two days a week.
In the letter to the Home Office and Foreign Office, the chairman pressed for detail on what steps are being taken to speed up visa applications and whether any additional resources are being allocated to resolve the issue.
The letter also expressed concern about the up-front costs of the visa and administration, which could be acting as a deterrent to some workers.
Committee chairman Pete Wishart MP said: ‘The government’s pilot scheme was intended to alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods, but if these visa delays continue there is a risk that Scottish farmers will be left high and dry without any support during harvesting season.
‘My committee was told there is a risk that workers simply won’t be on the ground in time – for example, in my constituency upwards of 40 workers are needed from next week to pick strawberries and we were told in no uncertain terms that they will not be there in time.
‘The government needs to do everything it can to support the pilot scheme and ensure that Scottish farmers do not have to face rotting produce because of bureaucratic delays.’
Scottish farms employ up to 10,000 non-UK nationals in seasonal positions in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors each year. However, some growers have reported a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in this workforce in recent years which has led to decreased production and rotting produce.
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, one of the organisations responsible for rolling out the pilot seasonal workers scheme, told the committee that the sector’s labour shortages will likely get worse this year.