MPs warn labour shortages in food sector could cause permanent damage

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned on Wednesday (6 April) that there can be no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by the current labour shortages.

Following the publication of a scathing new report, 'Labour shortages in the food and farming sector', MPs have warned that the government's failure to address labour shortages will cause permanent damage to the industry. According to Grant Thornton UK LLP's report, as of August 2021, the food and drink sector had "potentially in excess of 500,000 job vacancies", equivalent to a 12.5% structural vacancy rate described as a "chronic" labour shortage.


Although the cause of the current situation is multi-factored, the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit were cited as the primary catalysts.


The report also described how the current crisis negatively impacts the nation's food security, the welfare of animals, and the mental health of those currently working in the industry and dealing with the consequences.


The report warned that if the lack of staff isn't addressed soon, the consequences could be disastrous for the food industry, including a chain reaction of wage rises leading to price increases, food production exported abroad, and the UK becoming more dependent on imports.


The report is a stark reminder of the intense frustration felt in this industry over these shortages. Although businesses have made many valiant efforts to engage with the government on the issues, it concluded that the government refused to understand the challenges or take any responsibility - often passing the blame onto the sector.


The committee has called on the government to build upon its expansion of the Seasonal Worker pilot scheme to cover the ornamental sector and increase the number of visas available by 10,000 this year. They also want it to be permanent with less stringent English language requirements for skilled workers.


However, in the longer term, the report suggests that combining new technology with training packages should entice British-based workers into the sector and reduce dependence on overseas labour.


EFRA committee chairman Neil Parish said: "In 2021, farmers faced an extraordinary situation – crops were left to rot in the fields, and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers."


"This has serious implications for the wellbeing of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future. The government's attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing."


However, in response, a Government spokesperson said, "We have given the industry greater certainty by enabling the Seasonal Worker scheme until the end of 2024, allowing overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector."


"Our new points-based immigration system also expanded the skilled worker route to many more occupations, including butchers, who can now be recruited from anywhere in the world."


Do you have any thoughts on this issue? Have you experienced the fallout of these challenges in your supply chain? Let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading!


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