UK food chain calls for COVID recovery visa to address workforce shortages

The UK food and drink sector is calling for a 12-month COVID-19 recovery visa to help alleviate the workforce shortages that are causing serious disruption across the whole of the supply chain and significantly increasing the cost of getting food to the public.

A new report has been sent to government ministers today highlighting the impact the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is having on the sector’s ability to recruit key workers. The report highlights an average vacancy rate of 13% and estimates there are more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

In order to ensure continuity, quality and choice in our food supply both in the immediate and medium-term, the report sets out clear ways government can help the food and drink industry overcome the current workforce challenges. These include:

  • The introduction of a 12-month COVID-19 recovery visa which would enable all involved throughout the supply chain to recruit critical roles, such as HGV drivers, as a short-term response to labour shortages.
  • Commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme 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.

NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “For the past 18 months food and farming businesses have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full of nutritious and affordable food, but as this report demonstrates, businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.

“At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34% shortfall in recruitment.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs.

“It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based.

“A short term COVID Recovery Visa, alongside a permanent Seasonal Workers Scheme, would be an effective and, frankly, vital route to help the pressing needs of the industry today. It would also give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability so we can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”

Nick Allen, Chief Executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “The meat industry has been severely impacted by the current labour crisis, which is not only resulting in shortages in shops but is also beginning to have increasing upstream impacts on farms.

“We have welcomed the opportunity to join with other sectors in the food industry to pull together a summary of the massive challenges we are all facing and to offer some immediate and practical solutions to government.”

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