Food chain bodies call for 12 month visa extension

6th September 2021 | UK Policy & Regulation

A number of food chain bodies including the AIC and NFU have written to government calling for a 12-month visa extension to allow migrant workers to help alleviate the post-Brexit labour shortage that is affecting the sector. But early government responses are negative as it says this would conflict with the 2016 referendum result.

The comprehensive cross-industry report sent to ministers late last week highlights the combined impact of the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy on the food chain’s ability to recruit key workers. It notes an average vacancy rate of 13% – equivalent to more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses. This is seriously disrupting the whole supply chain and significantly increasing the cost of getting food to the public.

The 50-page document, complied by Grant Thornton, makes three main recommendations to help overcome the crisis and ensure continuity, quality and choice in the UK food supply in the immediate and medium-term time scales These are: to introduce a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa that would enable businesses involved at all stages of the food supply chain to recruit for critical roles such as HGV drivers, in a short-term response to the labour shortages.

Secondly, it calls for a commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture, one that is flexible and large enough to meet the industry’s workforce needs.

Lastly, it says the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) should carry out an urgent review of the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming industries – it is already doing this for the adult social care sector.

“It is clear that the UK food supply chain is facing a fundamental challenge as a result of a shortage of suitable workers,” comments AIC chief executive Robert Sheasby. “For the agri-supply sector, this is being felt most acutely in haulage and distribution.

“Our joint food industry report outlines the clear scale of the problem, but most importantly delivers a series of practical measures in the short and long term to help address them. The combination of EU Exit and the difficulties of EU and UK trade; Covid-19 and self-isolation; on top of global supply chain pressures have made for a perfect storm in the labour market. Industry and government must now work together to avoid this serious situation from escalating further.”

For the Food and Drink Federation, chief executive Ian Wright CBE adds: “This really authoritative report draws on a wide range of evidence to set out in stark detail the labour and skills shortages currently facing the food supply chain. The report makes it crystal clear 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. However, it is also evident that without fast action the labour challenges will continue. If they do, we can expect unwelcome consequences such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices, and reduced growth across the domestic food chain.”

NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw says farm businesses, at the very start of the supply chain, are under pressure. For example, horticultural businesses struggling to find the workforce they need, with some labour providers reporting a 34% shortfall in recruitment. This adds to 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,” he states.

“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,” notes Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association.

“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.”

“We are now experiencing significant difficulties in terms of labour shortages, says Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK. “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.”