Food sector calls for Covid Recovery Visa amid labour shortage

31 August 2021, 10:03 AM
  • An industry report revealed that the UK food and drink sector is suffering from a shortage of more than 500,000 vacancies
Food sector calls for Covid Recovery Visa amid labour shortage

The food and drink industry has come together to call for a new 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to help fill a shortfall in workers, which is causing serious disruption getting food onto retailers shelves.

The cross-industry report revealed that workforce vacancies are at an average rate of 13% for businesses, with more than 500,000 total vacancies, due to the impact of the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy.

Short and long-term solutions

The Covid-19 Recovery Visa would enable food industry players to recruit for critical roles, such as HGV drivers, in the short-term. Industry leaders from the NFU, Food and Drink Federation (FDF), British Meat Processors Association, Dairy UK and the British Frozen Food Federation also called for a commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK farmers and growers, and an urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee on the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming sector to improve the situation in the long term.

“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,” said NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw.

He stressed that businesses right across the supply chain are being hit by labour shortages. “At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34% shortfall in recruitment.” 

“A short-term Covid 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,” Tom continued. “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.”

Reduced choice, increased prices

Ian Wright of the FDF added that today’s labour shortages are caused by “a multitude of structural factors beyond those created by Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period”.

“The recommendations set out within this report, including the Covid Recovery Visa and measures to support domestic training and skills development, the adoption of new technologies and career promotion, provide industry and the Government with highly practical solutions. They will ensure that the food supply chain continues to thrive with a strong and skilled workforce,” Ian said.

Unless action is taken quickly, he added, the public can expect unwelcome consequences “such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices and reduced growth across the domestic food chain”.

A Government spokesperson told Speciality Food that the UK has a “highly resilient food supply chain and well-established ways of working with the food sector” to address disruptions, and urged employers to invest in the domestic workforce.

“We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of driving tests able to be conducted. However, most of the solutions are likely to be driven by industry, with progress already being made in testing and hiring, and a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity,” the spokesperson said.”

“We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.”

Stalling NI’s Covid recovery

Responding to the report, Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) warned that the current situation should be a ‘wake-up call’ for ministers – especially for those in Northern Ireland where some firms are operating at between 75%-90% of normal staffing levels.

“Food and drink is one of Northern Ireland’s most important sectors. It is the largest manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland, supporting some 113,000 jobs. A strong food and drink industry will be key to driving Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit economic growth,” Michael said. 

“These difficulties should act as a wake-up call for Government. The current situation is unsustainable, and if it deteriorates we are looking at higher food prices, choice for consumers significantly curtailed and ultimately Northern Ireland’s recovery from the pandemic stalled. We will continue to engage heavily with politicians locally and nationally to address this issue and deliver workable solutions.”

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