UK food industry sets out “clear ways” of overcoming labour shortages

UK food industry sets out “clear ways” of overcoming labour shortages

The UK food and drink sector has set out recommendations in a new report, asking the government for a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to help alleviate the current workforce shortages across the food supply chain.

The report was produced by Grant Thornton on behalf of industry members such as British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), Road Haulage Association United (RHA) and National Farmers Union (NFU). It has been sent to government ministers and aims to highlight the impact the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is having on the sector’s ability to recruit key workers.

The news comes as the National Pig Association (NPA) warned that healthy pigs may have to be culled due to labour-related backlogs on farms. NPA chief executive Zoe Davies told the Guardian that members were struggling to house surplus animals, saying “if the government doesn’t take action, perfectly healthy pigs will end up being destroyed and wasted and more pork will have to be imported from the EU.”

According to the report, of the 953,000 current vacancies across all sectors in the UK, over half of them are in the food and drink sector. The scale of this problem is seen more clearly when it is considered that the sector employs over 4.1 million people and contributes over £120 billion to the UK economy.

The food and drink sector also has an aging workforce. Estimates from the report suggest that one in four workers are due to retire within the next 10 years, which amounts to over one million people leaving the industry.

The NFU has said that the report sets out “clear ways” that the government can help the food and drink industry overcome the current workforce challenges. These include:

  • The introduction of a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa which would enable all involved throughout the supply chain to recruit critical roles, such as HGV drivers, as a short-term response to labour shortages
  • Commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture to ensure it is flexible and large enough to meet the industry’s workforce needs
  • An urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.

“A perfect storm”

Nick Allen, chief executive of the BMPA, said: “The meat industry has been severely impacted by the current labour crisis, which is not only resulting in shortages in shops but is also beginning to have increasing upstream impacts on farms.

“We have welcomed the opportunity to join with other sectors in the food industry to pull together a summary of the massive challenges we are all facing and to offer some immediate and practical solutions to government.”

BMPA pointed out that ballet dancers and artists are included on the UK’s Shortage Occupation List, but not skilled butchers.

Allen added: “Since Brexit, the Government has put in place new immigration rules that have abruptly pulled up the drawbridge and shut off access to overseas workers with specific skills and experience. This has plunged the meat industry and many others into a full-blown labour crisis. Their solution is simply to tell businesses to get on with hiring British workers then stand back. But it’s not that simple, at least not in the short term.”

Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation, said: “Labour shortages throughout the food supply chain are creating a ‘perfect storm’ of increasing costs for our members. Whilst the long-term solution is to train more UK nationals, we will only avoid further disruption to food supplies and inflationary cost increases by taking the temporary visa measures this report is recommending.”

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs.

“A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based.”

He added: “A short term Covid Recovery Visa, alongside a permanent Seasonal Workers Scheme, would be an effective and, frankly, vital route to help the pressing needs of the industry today. It would also give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability so we can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”

“The government must listen”

Tony Goodger, a spokesperson for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), also welcomed the cross-food industry report, stating that the association had been calling on the government for several months for a UK Covid Recovery Visa to be introduced.

Goodger said: “A great many of our members are experiencing severe labour shortages which in turn are resulting in reduced production. Add to this the shortage of drivers in the supply chain and it is clear that the government has to now listen carefully to the concerns of industry to prevent any further food shortages at the consumer end of the supply chain.”

He added that AIMS had also been asking the Home Office that Standard Occupation Codes 5431 (butchers) and 5433 (poultry processors) be added to the shortage occupation list. The association has also called for the reduction of the English Language requirement for skilled butchers and poultry processors from Level B1 to Level A2.

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