Vineyard fruit picker worker

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The government must use this opportunity to develop a secure and consistent way of recruiting the workforce needed to produce, pack and transport food

There is not a single business across the food supply chain that isn’t aware of, or is directly affected by, the impacts of the crippling labour shortages we are currently facing. The challenges are not new, but the current situation is the worst and most widespread the food industry has experienced for many years. Dealing with this crisis requires considerable resolve and I’m sure many businesses are stretched to capacity while coming up with different ways to deal with workforce shortages.

Brexit and the pandemic have had an undeniable impact on labour supply throughout the food chain, but they have only exacerbated issues that have long been prevalent – issues that have been putting UK food supply under serious pressure for almost a decade. The difficulties securing seasonal workers for the fruit & veg sector has been reported on for many years, and since my appointment as an NFU officeholder I have been hearing the same message from members across all sectors about issues they are having recruiting people with the skills needed to do the job.

While the industry-wide labour report, put together by Grant Thornton and published last week, highlights the short-term actions needed to reduce supply chain pressure, principally the introduction of Covid-19 Recovery Visas, the government cannot simply implement these and assume the problem has been dealt with.

Working with the food and farming sector, the government needs to use this opportunity as the country transitions to a new way of working outside the EU to evolve our systems and develop a secure and consistent way of recruiting the workforce needed to produce, pack and transport food. And this doesn’t just stop at recruitment – it must also include retaining, retraining and developing staff so businesses can work as efficiently as possible, and value the skilled nature of these roles. Success would see these roles and their importance to the nation recognised, whether it’s people picking fruit, processing chickens and pigs, or driving across the country to get fresh, quality British products to stores.


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The current crisis ultimately stems from a lack of understanding about how food production and supply works. That’s why it’s so frustrating to hear politicians assuming recruiters can simply pick staff from the domestic furloughed pool or pay more. Food and farming businesses know that furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located, and we also know that most people are unwilling, or unable, to travel far for work. Pay rises of over 30% are only moving the problem around, with workers that are mobile in the market understandably following the best paid jobs. New people are not being attracted to fill vacancies. A fundamental shift in how the government is currently approaching this issue is needed urgently.

This recent report is one step in our industry-wide efforts to work with government to come up with effective solutions to this chronic labour shortage. If policymakers are to properly understand the workforce challenges the supply chain is facing then every single business affected needs to do everything it can to engage. The organisations behind the report want to lead this movement but for it to have real influence it’s imperative that all businesses throughout the supply chain are demonstrating the issues they face.

I would urge those business leaders to write to their MP or relevant government department and invite them out to visit that business. As a united industry we need to explain why a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa is crucial in recruiting critical roles throughout the supply chain, why the Seasonal Workers pilot should be made permanent and extended to other sectors, and why we need the Migration Advisory Committee to review the impacts of ending freedom of movement on the food and farming sector.

And all of this must emphasise the potential long-term impacts, which ultimately is the continued offshoring of production, if government doesn’t use this time to transition to a more stable long-term footing. The above measures will help us in the immediacy, but we must work together as an industry, with government, to use the breathing room these measures would give us to look long term; to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce so businesses up and down the supply chain can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation, long into the future.