Britain’s food industry could shrink permanently if ministers fail to address labor shortages due to Brexit and coronavirus, which have already led to mass culling of pigs and rotting crops, MPs have warned.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the government has repeatedly ignored attempts by farmers and food processors to act to address labor shortages, leaving the industry chronically understaffed.
MPs on the cross-party committee said the £100 billion-plus sector “faces a permanent decline if a failure to address its acute labor shortages leads to wage increases, price hikes, reduced competitiveness and ultimately to food production exporting abroad and imports will be increased”. .
The committee report said ministers had failed to plan for the expected changes and that the emergency measures taken so far had been “too little, too late”.
Before the UK left the EU, the food industry relied heavily on continental European workers who settled in the UK as part of the free movement of people. The committee said a pilot program allowing overseas seasonal workers for harvesting should be made permanent and expanded from 30,000 to 40,000 visas this year.
It added that the visa regime for professionals, which admits people under the points-based post-Brexit system, should be reviewed to take into account cost and complexity and “tailor it.” . . the English language requirement to meet the needs of the sector”.
Meat processing and fruit and vegetable harvesting are among the most affected sectors. Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said his members were dealing with long-term vacancies of 10-15 per cent despite rising wages.
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The shortage caused more than 150,000 surplus pigs to accumulate on UK farms last year as processors were unable to slaughter and butcher them – at least 35,000 healthy animals were culled. The committee called on the government to offer direct financial support to pig farmers while accelerating a fairness review of the pork supply chain.
Allen said the pig backlog is gradually being reduced as staff work “very long hours” and only do basic slaughter. “You’re coping with the fact that you’re actually doing less with the meat and probably wasting more,” he added.
But high Covid-19 rates have put a renewed strain on the slaughterhouses’ operations in recent weeks, prompting at least two to temporarily suspend operations, he said.
“If you can’t find the labor, it’s easier to do the work abroad. . . People are looking for automation, but to invest in automation you need trust, and that’s lacking with rampant inflation,” he added.
Short-term visa regimes for poultry workers, pork butchers and truck drivers were announced so late in 2021 before Christmas that it “limited the sector’s ability to reap the benefits of the visas,” the committee noted.
The committee’s chair, Neil Parish MP, said the government needed to “change its attitude towards the food and farming sectors – trust them and act promptly when they raise concerns”.
Labor shortages affect “the food security, animal welfare and mental health of workers in the sector. . .[but]The government has not shown a strong understanding of these issues and has on occasion even attempted to shift the blame onto the sector based on misinformation about its own immigration system,” the report said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We fully recognize that the food and agriculture industry faces labour-related challenges and we continue to work with the sector to mitigate these.”
It plans to lay out further plans to support automation, adding: “Our new points-based immigration system also expanded the skilled worker path to many more professions, including butchers, who can now be recruited from anywhere in the world.”
https://www.ft.com/content/55fa323f-d65f-4bbc-bbc1-55617c5b2288 Britain’s food industry faces risk of ‘permanent contraction’, MPs warn