Tavish Scott: The labour crisis is squeezing our most successful food export like never before

Imagine getting a rigid-inflatable boat to work, skimming across the waves on the Sound of Mull, early morning sunlight glittering on the waves, porpoises playing in the bow wave.

Or what about crewing a specialist wellboat, using your expertise to work on farms on a state-of-the-art, multi-million pound vessel from Shetland to Loch Fyne and everywhere in between.

Or what about a career in a state-of-the-art processing plant, learning to mix the wood chips expertly so the smoked salmon emerges with the best balance of smoke and salt.

But here’s the thing: these role aren’t imaginary. They – and many, many more similar ones – are waiting to be filled. Like many other sectors, Scottish salmon cannot get the workers it needs for a whole range of different jobs.

In short, we have a labour issue and it is getting worse.

This is not just about Brexit, although our departure from Europe definitely made things harder. Nor is it just about the haulage crisis and the lack of drivers putting strain on elsewhere.

This is about a mashing together of a whole range of factors, all of which have combined to squeeze Scotland’s most successful food export like never before.

Let’s take those fish farm jobs first. Many people, particularly those who grew up in the Highlands and Islands, relish the idea of working in fish farming. They can live in the areas they love, they can work outdoors and on the water. Also, the pay is pretty good with average salaries of £38,000.

But we are short of workers in most of the areas in which we farm and the main reason is housing. There is a dearth of housing, particularly for young people and families, in the Highlands and Islands.

Our members are doing what they can: building, buying and working with the planning authorities, but the problem is so widespread it will need coordinated action to help resolve.

The situation is more acute in fish processing. Our members are between 20-25 per cent down in staff numbers. Some of this is down to Covid with self-isolating rules and a precautionary approach keeping employees away from plants they would normally be staffing.

But this is also a Brexit issue. Many of the roles currently vacant used to be done by European workers.

Our member companies have tried offering inducements and golden handshakes to new entrants but the reality is that the largely European workforce which used to fill these roles has gone home and cannot return.

The Norwegian wellboats problem is also about our departure from the EU because this involves a group of very highly paid workers suddenly having to have visas where this wasn’t the case before.

There are opportunities there for British crew members to take up these posts but that will take time, investment and a change of direction by the Norwegian companies.

These are clearly Brexit-related problems but it is no good railing against that now: the Brexit ship has sailed. Instead, we all need to focus on what practical steps can be taken now to ease the labour crisis we, and others, are facing.

The first thing the UK Government needs to do is offer us the same flexibility it has given to other sectors, like poultry and haulage. They can bring in European workers on temporary visas to help them cope, why can’t we? We have to be able to bring in fish processing workers from the EU – and further afield to fill the roles we cannot fill domestically, otherwise we are going to struggle and the situation will just get worse.

Scottish salmon is not the only sector to be suffering in this way but what makes our position more acute is that we are dealing with a perishable product. The time it takes us to get fish from harvest to market is extremely important and delays cause problems.

Like many other sectors, we are looking towards Christmas with apprehension. At this stage, we have no doubt: we will be supplying our customers as usual, at home and abroad. But it is a peak time (a quarter of all smoked salmon sales in the EU take place in the run-up to Christmas) and there is obviously a concern that another Covid surge could force our members to scale back without the workers needed to get everything on to the shelves in time.

Scotland’s salmon farmers will do everything they can to make sure the shelves are full, not just in the run-up to Christmas but during the rest of the year too. But they desperately need the intervention of a government which recognises the seriousness of the problem and is willing to offer the flexibility needed to keep production flowing.

It is easy to understand the UK government’s reluctance to concede on what ministers see as an important point of principle, but principle can turn into dogmatism which is no good for anyone.

All we want is the flexibility to employ the people we need to keep on producing the nation’s favourite fish. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Tavish Scott is chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992