Workers at Mansfield


A potential labour shortage in the food manufacturing sector looms if the supply of EU migrants dries up after Brexit, a new report concludes

The food manufacturing sector needs to rethink its approach to recruitment and production in the wake of the impending crisis over labour, a new report has claimed.

The sector is being squeezed by the twin challenges of a potential labour shortage if the supply of EU migrants dries up after Brexit, and the need to recruit up to 140,000 new workers by 2024.

The report also claimed the food manufacturing sector was struggling under downward cost pressures from supermarkets. The authors of the report said government and industry should consider the impact of dominant supermarket chains and their relationship with manufacturers.

The warning was issued in the briefing paper Earning a Crust: a review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing, co-produced by Manchester Metropolitan University for the Food Research Collaboration, an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.

The report said that nearly a third of the 117,000-strong UK food manufacturing workforce was made up of EU migrants, meaning the sector had become hugely dependent on these workers. Combined with the skills shortage and the fact the sector was often viewed as an unattractive career option, the food industry needed to rethink its approach, it said.

“Both industry and government has to react to these challenges. They will need to find a fresh supply of labour if there are restrictions on EU migrants, or invest in greater automation, otherwise the UK could see food costs rise and could become even more reliant on imported food,” said Dr Adrian Morley, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the research.

“We need to decide as a society what type of food system we want - one that provides good quality jobs and long-term careers for the majority of its workers, or one subject to the vagaries of world markets, which are often dependent on low-skill, low-paid work.”

Report co-author Dr Michael Heasman said the crisis would need a collaborative approach across the sector.

“Food manufacturing is a hugely important economic sector, yet struggles under downward costs pressures from supermarkets and a need to develop higher level skills to ensure its future success,” he said.

“While many individual food companies provide good workplaces, the potential labour crunch in food manufacturing calls for a collaborative approach and leadership from business, government, trade unions and educators to develop an integrated workforce strategy for the future.”