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UK food chain urges government to address workforce shortages with COVID-19 Recovery Visa

30 August 2021
National Farmers Union

A new cross-industry report is calling for the UK government to implement a 12-month COVID-19 Recovery Visa to address workforce shortages in the agri-food sector.

Ongoing workforce shortages have been causing serious disruption across the whole of the supply chain and significantly increasing the cost of getting food to the public.

The report has been sent to government ministers and highlights the impact the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is having on the sector’s ability to recruit key workers. The report highlights an average vacancy rate of 13% and estimates there are more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses. 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.

In order to ensure continuity, quality and choice in our food supply both in the immediate and medium-term, the report sets out clear ways 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 labour 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 & farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.

NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said:

“For the past 18 months food and farming businesses have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full of nutritious and affordable food, but as this report demonstrates, businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs.

“It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based.

“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 to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”

Nick Allen, Chief Executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said:

"The meat industry has been severely impacted by the current labour crisis, which is not only resulting in shortages in shops but is also beginning to have increasing upstream impacts on farms.

“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.

“We have welcomed the opportunity to join with other sectors in the food industry to pull together a summary of the massive challenges we are all facing and to offer some immediate and practical solutions to government.”

Dr Judith Bryans, Chief Executive of 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 labour 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.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic an additional 1.3 million foreign born workers have left the UK and are yet to return. 

Read the full report here

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