Since the Brexit referendum we have been concerned about availability of labour as our non-UK workforce began to trickle away and it became more difficult and costly to fill vacancies. Covid has slowed the loss for the last year by keeping people in the UK and recognising our key workers as #foodheroes. Since the UK actually left the EU we have been seriously worried that we have only delayed the Brexit effect and at some point this year we will see increasing departures of non-UK staff who we will be unable to replace.
The fundamental challenges are not new. There has never been sufficient interest by, or enough availability of, UK workers in the areas in which we operate in order to support the growth we have achieved over the last twenty years. Thus the reliance on non-UK staff, which is around 60% of our overall workforce. Brexit policies created to assuage ideologies have exacerbated the situation. An unwelcoming environment combined with immigration barriers and overwhelming bureaucracy means it is costly to replace the skilled people we lose, even if those people were available and willing.
This is about a workforce as a whole, regardless of point of origin. Poultry is half the meat we eat in this country and is therefore crucial to future food security. We need to be able to draw on labour to achieve that and it should not matter where it comes from. This Government is jeopardising poultry production from two directions: in blocking non-UK labour, and in its lack of investment in skills and education to help people move into food and farming sectors.
If we are to have a sustainable workforce, and therefore a sustainable food sector, then we need both acknowledgement of the problems and rapid movement towards solutions.
Streamlined entry for non-UK #foodheroes
For a period of time after we move out of the pandemic we are going to continue to need access to non-UK labour. This is simply a fact. The type of roles might change as we invest in innovation and technology (see below) but they will carry on being vital to UK poultry production and thus food security.
We need the Government to acknowledge this fact and make provision within the existing framework. Reducing the immigration thresholds on salary and skills – for essential workers in food production – is crucial. Cutting the visa administration and cost would also be necessary. Adding more food and farming jobs to the skilled worker and shortage occupation lists could help match roles with applicants and create a fast-track channel in the visa system.
…not forgetting seasonal workers
A direct effect of restricting access to labour is that seasonal poultry businesses are unlikely to be able to source labour for Christmas production. Being able to bring in non-UK labour for the weeks leading up to the festive period has allowed British turkey and goose to be at the centre of Christmas dinners up and down the country. We would like to see a pathway for time-limited workers (which should include for the summer barbecue season as well as Christmas) and with a low administrative burden and cost to support seasonal businesses. If not then we might all be eating French or German turkeys next Christmas.
Education and Skills Pathways
We must have food production at the heart of skills and education programmes, with clear pathways into secure long-term professions. The Government’s latest training policy, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, does not even cover food and drink and this must be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity.
Where funding is available, such as the apprenticeship levy, it should be channelled into three key areas. First, identifying and supporting the skills the sector actually needs; second to promote food and drink as a positive choice through the education system; and third to support people to step into food and drink sectors.
…which must include social mobility
Government must not ignore the fact that possible pools of labour are rarely where the opportunities are. Historically it has been much more difficult to get people to move from one side of the country to the other than it has to get them to move from the other side of the continent to the UK. We must support both routes if we are to continue to thrive as a food sector but those are two contrasting challenges. It is a difference in willingness and circumstances and the Government must realise that one cannot substitute for the other without significant investment and support.
…and a word about furlough
There is an assumption that coming out of the pandemic there will be people exiting the furlough system and looking for new employment. This is an opportunity for Government to push their education and skills initiatives toward food and drink. The challenges of re-skilling and of geographical location of roles and/or people need to be addressed ahead of time.
Upskilling, Technology, and Innovation
The poultry meat sector has a history of creating and investing in efficient production systems, as befits an unsubsidised, market-driven industry. This has been evident throughout the pandemic and during our exit from the EU. Investment in new technology, and the skills to accompany it, is taking place to both improve sustainable productivity and to mitigate the effects of Brexit, be that administrative burden or losing staff.
The commitment to innovation is there but people are, and will remain, our most valuable asset, whether that is excellent husbandry on farms or skilled engineering in the processing plant. However, we need time to manage this ongoing process. We need the Government to maintain as close and frictionless relationship as possible with the EU and avoid significant changes to legislation. Keeping alignment with EU regulations will allow consistency over the coming years during which investment can be made and people’s skills can be developed. Similarly an SPS agreement will reduce the trade burden and increase business viability, thereby helping the sector be an attractive place to work.
What happens next?
Food security in the UK relies on productive sectors like ours. We have long talked about the danger of a two-tier food system from the perspective of imports not meeting our standards, but there is a danger that we will be the ones who create that situation. In ignoring the pressures caused by Brexit the Government is threatening the sustainability, viability, and competitiveness of food producers.
When costs of production rise there are only ever two options: increase efficiency or increase price. As the sector that provides quality, affordable protein for the majority of the country we are aware of the difficulties many people face and for whom even a modest price rise would be catastrophic. That leaves efficiency and productivity. Both of which we want to invest in but it cannot be delivered without Government support for access to labour, mobility of labour, and skill development.