Food chain labour shortages: What you need to know

08 September 2021

Read our explainer to find out what is causing issues in the food chain, how farmers and growers are being affected and what needs to be done to resolve them.

What is the current situation?

Currently, there are an estimated 500,000 job vacancies across the food and drink sector.

This shortage of workers means that for the horticultural sector, some crops remain unpicked, or are being picked later than planned, and some produce is being left longer in storage. For the poultry sector, it means that production has had to be cut back, with a real chance Christmas supplies will be affected.

Some abattoirs are operating shorter weeks, and meat processing plants are also struggling to recruit, with knock-on effects throughout the food chain. The situation is being worsened because of a shortage of lorry drivers, which means even when product is available it cannot always reach its destination.

The chronic staff shortages in the supply chain means that all businesses – farmers, growers, wholesalers and manufacturers – are having to offer incentives to retain and recruit staff. Costs are rising for all involved.

It is important that these labour challenges don’t force farmers and growers to reduce production, impacting business and leading to less choice of UK goods for consumers.

How has this problem come about?

There are many factors that have brought us here. A perfect storm of:

  • Covid-related travel restrictions
  • Self-isolation rules
  • EU nationals returning home to be with their families
  • The UK’s new points-based immigration system, which coincides with the free movement of EU citizens ending because of Brexit.

In the UK, as with many developed countries, seasonal work has relied heavily on migrant labour.

Despite help from the DWP, and its ‘matchmaker’ scheme that linked growers to Job Centre Plus offices, we have struggled to recruit UK workers. There are negative perceptions of the sector, and UK workers are often not attracted to seasonal work because:

  • Travelling to rural locations is difficult and costly
  • It often requires living on farm
  • The work can be irregular and often temporary.

Farming is also often wrongly perceived as being a low-skilled sector. The reality is that many of the roles needing to be filled are highly skilled, whether that’s vets, drivers or pickers. For instance, pickers need excellent hand-eye co-ordination, stamina and physical fitness.

How can we find solutions?

The government wants the industry to recruit from within the UK.

Businesses are already working more creatively to recruit domestic labour, though there must be an understanding that some of the solutions, such as improving rural transport and providing cheaper rural accommodation, lie outside of their control.

Investment in automation has also been high on the agenda, but for many sectors automation is not a viable replacement for the flexibility, dexterity and judgement that a human workforce provides. Even where robotic solutions are being developed, most are at least five to ten years away from commercial realisation.

The industry needs time to adapt, and the UK government must recognise the practical challenges of replacing a largely migrant workforce. Even with new ways of working, new incentives, and the adoption of new technologies, it is likely there will remain a need for migrant workers for a number of years to come.

What are we doing about it?

The NFU, working with other organisations from across the food and drink supply chain, want to work with government and MPs to tackle these challenges on a short- and long-term basis.

Below are our key asks.

Short-term asks

Most importantly, we have called for the introduction of a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa. This visa would enable all involved in the supply chain to recruit to critical roles and significantly reduce the labour shortages currently being faced. It will alleviate the pressure on the sector and give it the time it needs to continue to recruit and train domestic staff.

We need a permanent seasonal workers scheme for the UK horticulture industry and a seasonal workers scheme for the poultry sector. This would enable us to plan and create stability in the supply chain.

We also need to commission the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out a detailed review of the sector, as is currently under way with social care. This would enable us to identify roles that should be added to the government’s Shortage Occupation List, and potential improvements to the immigration system.

Long-term asks

We must promote the agriculture sector as a career choice and reverse the negative perception of many of the job roles in our industry. This should include having a coordinated approach to skills and training.

Add relevant food and drink courses to the list of Level 3 adult courses eligible for the £95m Lifetime Skills Guarantee. This will help to bridge the widening skills gap with overseas workers while working to attract and train home-grown workers.

Extend the government’s Youth Mobility Scheme to cover European and other relevant countries, such as Ukraine. This will enable some flexibility in the labour market to meet the demand for roles that don’t meet the criteria of the Skilled Worker visa.

Have greater flexibility in how the Apprenticeship Levy can be used to enable businesses to train and upskill more staff.

Consider changes to immigration policy, such as creating a smoother and quicker visa process, reducing the cost of visas and following through on advice provided by a MAC review.

Why will the NFU solution work?

What we are asking for will not only benefit food production in the UK, it also creates longer-term opportunities by improving skills, enhancing productivity and working towards the levelling-up agenda.

You can make a difference

Help amplify the message to government by emailing your MP today to call on government to introduce a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa so we can keep our vital food and drink supply chain moving. You can personalise these pre-filled emails with details of your own particular challenges.

You could also invite your local MP on farm, so they can experience the issues you are facing right now.

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