Food chain calls on Prime Minister to act on crippling labour shortages

Organisations from across the UK’s food and farming sector have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking him to implement a COVID Recovery Visa as a matter of urgency to alleviate crippling labour shortages across the supply chain.

The proposal for a 12-month temporary visa to help businesses fill gaps in their workforce was proposed in September in an industry-commissioned report by Grant Thornton that estimated there were 500,000 unfilled vacancies across the industry.

The letter to the Prime Minister followed an emergency roundtable earlier this week convened by the NFU, during which representatives from the UK food supply chain discussed the growing crisis, which has resulted and empty shelves in supermarkets and, in some cases, food left on farms unable to be picked up or processed. This includes a backlog of pigs on farms now estimated to be in excess of 100,000 pigs.

The organisations behind the letter, including the NPA, said they were united in the short and long-term measures needed to solve this issue:

  • The introduction of a 12-month COVID Recovery Visa which would enable all involved throughout the supply chain to recruit critical roles as a short-term response to labour shortages.
  • Commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture to ensure it is flexible and large enough to meet the industry’s workforce needs.
  • An urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of ending free movement on the food & farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.

The letter to the Prime Minister said: “The food and farming sector remains on a knife edge due to the unprecedented shortages of workers across the entire supply chain. The industry came together in the summer to evidence these challenges, and the final report showed that there are an estimated 500,000 unfilled vacancies across the industry.

“The situation is not improving, in fact, images of empty supermarket shelves are becoming commonplace as labour shortages bite. As we move towards Christmas, there is a substantial threat of food inflation directly impacting the poorest families.

“That is why the entire UK food supply chain from farm supply to retail outlets are united in calling for an emergency COVID Recovery Visa to open up new recruitment opportunities as a matter of urgency. Without it more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try and get through the winter.

“It is a travesty that this is happening in parallel with UK food producers disposing of perfectly edible food as it either cannot be picked, packed, processed or transported to the end customer. Every day there are new examples of food waste across the industry, from chicken to pork, fruit and vegetables, dairy and many other products. The food is there, but it needs people to get it to the consumers.

“Our industry report also highlights vital mid to long term solutions for accessing seasonal and permanent workers, and all remain equally important to ensure this situation does not arise again. But the supply chain will be critically damaged beyond recovery if it cannot overcome the immediate crisis.

“There have already been long term consequences as businesses have had to take the decision to reduce production indefinitely or cease trading altogether. That is why we must have an urgent commitment from you to enable the industry to recruit from outside the UK over the next 12 months to get us through the winter.”

Signatories to the letter include:

  • Agricultural Industries Confederation Limited
  • British Frozen Food Federation
  • British Meat Processors Association
  • British Poultry Council Limited
  • Dairy UK Limited
  • Federation of Wholesale Distributers
  • Food and Drink Federation
  • National Farmers’ Union
  • National Pig Association
  • Road Haulage Association Limited
  • The Cold Chain Federation
  • UK Hospitality

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.