Bolney grape harvest

The Home office said it would consider the committee’s report ’and respond in due course’

Food and farming bodies have slammed the government’s Migration Advisory Committee after it “ignored” the sector by not including under-resourced jobs on its shortage occupation list.

The independent MAC published an updated list of so-called “shortage occupations” – or jobs that need to be filled by non-UK workers – last week, after it was commissioned by the government to undertake a full review ahead of Brexit. 

Despite adding vets, agronomists, food technologists and roles as diverse as dance choreographers, artists and video game programmers to the list, the committee largely excluded agriculture and food production – a move described as “staggering” by NFU president Minette Batters. 

During the committee’s consultation period for its new list, the NFU had provided “a range of critical jobs” that many non-UK workers performed on farms at all skill levels, it said, with roles ranging from dairy herdsmen to poultry technicians. 

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But despite the well-documented labour shortages across the food sector, the MAC had “failed to recognise the needs of our industry, and the implications for shoppers wanting to continue to buy affordable high quality British food”, said a “disappointed” Batters. 

“In a post-Brexit world, access to overseas workers may be restricted. If we can’t get some of these permanent roles on the shortage occupation list, we will be limited purely to UK-based workers to fill those jobs when we know, with the country at near full employment, the numbers are just not there,” she added. 

Her concerns were echoed by the FDF, with a spokeswoman stating the future immigration system needed to ensure “employers across the food chain are able to access the workers they need at all skill levels”. 

It was “vital” the government built flexibility into the post-Brexit immigration system to ensure it was responsive to the changing skills needs of industry, added BRC policy advisor for employment and skills Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns.

“The retail industry is undergoing a re-invention which is changing the skills base of the workforce. Reskilling and upskilling, while critical to the future of the industry, takes time so it is right that employers can access key skills from outside the UK quickly and easily where there is a domestic shortage.”

Labour shortages

British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward also “shared the NFU’s frustrations”, particularly in light of labour shortages in the fresh produce sector. 

“Without a good supply of labour, we run the risk of exporting our food production to other countries and eroding our capacity to feed ourselves,” he added. “It is simple as that.” 

Elsewhere, the National Sheep Association and National Pig Association both called for the government to rethink the list and “broaden its definition of skills in migration proposals”. 

The MAC’s definition of ‘skilled work’ “totally neglects a significant area of what most would consider a skilled occupation”, such as general abattoir workers, said NSA CEO Phil Stocker, “without which the UK sheep industry could not function”. 

If adopted by ministers, the list meant restrictions would likely compromise the pig sector’s production capacity “and hamper our ability to respond to growing global demand for pork”, added NPA CEO Zoe Davies. 

And while the berry industry would not be affected by the omission of its jobs from the list in the short-term, British Summer Fruits CEO Nick Marston warned the government needed to make its seasonal agriculture workers scheme trial permanent and expanded to avert a post-Brexit labour crisis across the sector. 

In response, a Home Office spokeswoman said the government would carefully consider the MAC’s report “and respond in due course”.

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