Widening gaps on supermarket shelves and the promise of shortages of Christmas favourites like turkey and pigs-in-blankets have exposed a major flaw in the Government’s handling of the ongoing UK labour crisis and a new report.
The report highlights the scale of the problem by stating that of the 953,000 current vacancies across all sectors in the UK, over half of them are in the food and drink sector. And this is an industry that needs a lot of workers, employing over 4.1 million people, making it bigger than the automotive and aerospace sectors combined, and contributing over £120 billion to the UK economy.
The sector also has an aging workforce with estimates suggesting that one in four workers are due to retire within the next 10 years, which amounts to over one million people leaving the industry.
Nick Allen, CEO of The British Meat Processors Association explains: “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”.
Since the beginning of the pandemic an additional 1.3 million foreign born workers have left the UK and are yet to return. We now need Government to use their new-found sovereign powers and start managing a controlled generational shift in the British workforce which will ultimately deliver their promised levelling-up agenda.
He said, “The sector is asking Government to introduce a 12-month COVID-19 Recovery Visa to address the immediate labour crisis. This will provide a short-term fix while allowing time to explore and implement longer-term solutions.
The Second most important change the Government can make is to revisit the Shortage Occupation List and add to it skilled workers that simply cannot be replaced overnight such as butchers and HGV drivers. It’s worth noting that currently, ballet dancers and artists are on that list, while at the same time there are growing gaps forming in supermarket meat aisles due to a chronic shortage of skilled butchers in the country.
After nearly half a century of EU membership, during which the UK actively encouraged foreign nationals to come to our country, it is not feasible to think that we can unwind that system over night. Many of the jobs taken by EU nationals have for a long time been out of favour with British people, who during the same period were encouraged to take on student loans and head to university. The net effect today is that fewer school leavers are heading into the food industry and companies are left trying to compete for a dwindling pool of UK candidates.
Over time the food and drink sector will adjust to the new normal that Brexit and covid has created, until then the report suggests that the government takes a pragmatic view on allowing migrant workers to fill the current labour shortfall. Ultimately our food security depends on it.