THE Scottish Government has been involved in talks on how to encourage more Scots to take jobs as fruit pickers.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing told MSPs that ministers are working with bodies including Skills Development Scotland and the National Farmers Union of Scotland “in order to encourage more people, indigenous people, to work in the fruit picking sector”.

Brexit had caused fears the sector could be hit hard by a reduction in the number of migrant workers coming to Scotland, and Ewing said safe working practices must now also be considered in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.

He told MSPs: “One of the things that really concerns me is the requirements for health and safety and employment rights of all farm workers, including particularly migrant workers, in terms of social distancing.”

He was speaking after Aberdeen South and North Kincardine SNP MSP Maureen Watt voiced fears that “even before Covid, we had heard that the number of migrants that were going to be allowed into the UK was woefully inadequate” for the industry, which relies on large numbers of overseas workers.

Scottish Government official Gerry Saddler told her ministers are involved in weekly meetings with the fruit and vegetable sector “in which we have discussed the requirement for seasonal labour”.

He told MSPs on Holyrood’s Rural Economy Committee the discussions had looked at the “development of guidance to ensure safe working on fruit farms”.

He said: “We’re also discussing how we can support recruiting more indigenous labour, but ensuring when migrant labour is required, because the industry themselves recognise they need a blend of experienced migrant labour with locally-recruited labour, so we have to ensure we get the balance right.”

But he stressed: “We also have to ensure the safety of the migrant labour, indeed all labour really, is of paramount importance.”