UK food chain calls for COVID-19 Recovery Visa to address workforce shortages, feed industry not hugely impacted

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Monty Rakusen
© GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

Related tags HGV drivers Brexit covid-19 labor shortage

The AIC, alongside a number of UK food and drink sector bodies, via a new cross-industry report, is calling for a 12-month COVID-19 Recovery Visa to help alleviate the workforce shortages that are causing serious disruption across the whole of the supply chain.

Feedback to date though indicates that feed businesses are not severely impacted by workforce shortages, said the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC).

"We have had one or two reports of challenges to fill shifts but this was largely related to the whole ‘pingdemic’ issue and not necessarily a structural shortage of staff,"​ said James McCulloch, head of feed sector at the AIC.

"In terms of feed deliveries, businesses running fleets with their own drivers are not seeing problems with driver availability at present and have not lost drivers to other sectors who might be looking to attract new drivers with introductory bonus payments, etc. The majority of UK feed compounders would be managing their own fleets and drivers.  

"For bulk deliveries of straights, co-products, etc. direct to farm, there is a higher reliance on owner/drivers or contractors to carry out these deliveries. Some feed companies have sent letters to their farming customers asking them to plan ahead when considering their feed requirements so that the feed suppliers can ensure that supply meets demand.

"The AIC would encourage livestock farmers to get in touch with their feed suppliers well in advance to discuss future delivery schedules​," McCulloch told us.

Worker recruitment in UK food, drink and farming sectors 

The cross-industry report, produced by Grant Thornton on behalf of the various food and farming groups was sent to UK government ministers last week. It highlights the impact the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is having on the sector’s ability to recruit key workers, showing an average vacancy rate of 13% and estimates of around 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

In order to ensure continuity, quality and choice in domestic food supply both in the immediate and medium-term, the report sets out clear ways the UK 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 labor 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.

Labor shortage hitting pig farms  

NPA chief executive, Zoe Davies, said: "There are currently 70k pigs backed upon farm, rising by 15,000 a week due to pork processors permanently reducing throughput as a result of labor shortages in plants, especially butchers, and there is no end in sight.

"We are desperately seeking support from the government, particularly the Home Office, to facilitate access to these people now. For the second time in under a year the pig sector is facing some really tough choices, which we really shouldn't have to be taking as demand for British pork is still strong.

"If the government doesn’t take action, perfectly healthy pigs will end up being destroyed and wasted.”

Surplus pigs incur extra costs in the form of feed and penalties charged by processors for overweight animals.

Investing in domestic workforce

Vice president of the UK’s National Farming Union (NFU), Tom Bradshaw, said that businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.

“A short term COVID-19 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.”

Dr Judith Bryans, CEO, Dairy UK, commented: “The food and drink sector is the bedrock of food security in the UK as well as being a major contributor to the economy. The food sector is investing into the skills and recruitment of its workforce and taking all the measures it can to address the many issues raised in this report. However, we are now experiencing significant difficulties in terms of labor shortages. One very practical example is the disruption in the delivery of food across the UK due to the serious shortage of HGV drivers.

“This report lays out clearly what government support and interventions are now essential for the food and drink sector to address these issues and avoid a future of continued disruption. We’d strongly urge the government to act upon the recommendations within this report.”

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