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The meat sector has warned the plans could affect butcher and abattoir worker numbers

Tough new immigration rules announced by the home secretary could intensify already challenging recruitment conditions in the meat sector, industry bodies have warned.

In a major announcement to parliament, James Cleverly yesterday unveiled new government plans that would “slash migration levels and curb abuse of the immigration system”.

The rules, outlined in a new “five-point plan” by Cleverly, include increasing the minimum salary required to be eligible for a skilled overseas worker visa by a third, from £26,200 to £38,700.

Other proposals include big increases in the minimum income for family visas and an end to companies paying workers 20% less than the going rate for jobs on the Shortage Occupation List – the content of which the government also intends to review via the Migration Advisory Committee.

The home secretary – who succeeded the ousted Suella Braverman last month – said the plans would render 300,000 people allowed to come to the UK last year ineligible. And echoing the rhetoric voiced by predecessors such as Priti Patel, he added the move would “crack down on cut-price labour from overseas”.

However, the plans, particularly the minimum salary required for a skilled worker visa, have already faced stiff criticism from the meat sector, which warned it could herald fresh shortages of key workers such as butchers, vets and abattoir workers – last seen in 2021 and 2022 at the height of the pork sector’s post-Brexit backlog crisis.

British Meat Processors Association CEO Nick Allen said the proposals failed “to take into account that the average [wage] is made up of both higher and lower salaries; and it’s often in the lower bracket that worker shortages are most acute”. He also warned hiking the minimum salary to £38,700 risked “quickly spark[ing] wage inflation across many industries as existing UK workers demand the same salary”. 

Any restriction in the number of migrants that can come to the UK to fill the job vacancies (which could not be filled with British candidates) would also heap “inevitable pressure on all sectors as they compete in a pool of workers that is simply not big enough to support a growing economy”, Allen added.

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His comments were echoed by Association of Independent Meat Suppliers spokesman Tony Goodger, who said “at a time when it is becoming harder to recruit and retain vets to work in abattoirs, the rise in the earnings threshold for overseas workers is bound to place even greater pressure on the supply chain”.

AIMS took particular issue with Cleverly’s reference to “cut-price” labour, added Goodger. The government “simply do not recognise the very clear skillsets that butchers have” to the UK meat sector, he said.

Additionally, the trade body was “disappointed the home secretary didn’t take the opportunity to simply scrap the Shortage Occupation List – which was a recommendation made by the Migration Advisory Committee earlier this year”, he said. “A free flow of labour will grow the UK economy and yesterday’s announcements appear to thwart that ambition.”

AIMS is calling for vets – numbers of which have been at critical levels for several years – to be added to an extended health and care visa. And while it welcomed a review of the Shortage Occupation List, it was concerned the review’s objective was “to reduce the number of occupations on the list”, Goodger said.

There are currently two food-related jobs on the Shortage Occupation List: butchers (which include abattoir workers), and fishmongers and poultry dressers. AIMS said around 3,000 butchers were recruited from the Philippines during the summer, with about 500 from Nepal.

But despite these numbers, there were still shortfalls of skilled workers, said Greg Tyler, director of recruitment business 360 Recruitment, which works with AIMS to place staff within its members, and he warned the implementation of the new rules could lead to a “mad rush” to recruit, ”with employers bringing forward hiring plans before the salary cap rises”. This “could really be an huge own goal for next years pre-election statistics”, he added.

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Ultimately, the current immigration crisis was “partly a problem of the government’s own making”, suggested Provision Trade Federation director general Rod Addy.

“It was easier to deal with illegal migration when the UK was part of the EU. In addition, the UK has always relied on a steady net influx of immigrant labour to bolster production and the economy,” he said.

“Migrants who settle here contribute as much to GDP as domestic workers. I fear raising the salary threshold for skilled worker visas goes too far and will cut off a vital lifeline of staff and succession planning for the food sector in occupations that historically have attracted few UK recruits.”

Food manufacturers had also had to increase wages for operational staff in line with inflation over the past 18 months, but wages for crucial roles would still fall below this threshold, Addy pointed out.

“This would constrain recruitment, particularly for small to medium-sized businesses,” he added. “In an ideal world, food suppliers would be able to invest in automation to offset worker shortages, but many need time and more funding to do this, neither of which they currently have.”