By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
The labour availability crisis remains the biggest threat to our industry both now and will remain so in the short/medium term unless the UK Government takes decisive steps to alleviate the difficulties facing the wider food production sectors across GB and Northern Ireland. The BEIC recently submitted evidence to the House of Common’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its inquiry ‘Labour shortages in the food and farming sector’. Thank you to all who provided evidence to us on how their business has been affected, which we have been able to input into our response.
The picture that has been painted is not good, for example, senior management in several businesses working 7 days a week to carry out the work usually done by other members of staff; shortage of HGV drivers, catchers etc.
Some UK Government spokespeople have called on British agriculture to pay more, look at more training, and even automate as a long-term solution to the problem. Wages have increased but in some cases to no avail. There are some workers who now want to work fewer hours as they are getting paid more. Government has been told that there is already a significant amount of automation in the British egg industry, and we will strive to upskill much of the workforce through our Lion Training Passport, which we are continually updating to adapt and suit the needs of a world leading food sector. The BEIC was also involved in the development and launch of the British Hen Academy to help encourage more young people of school-leaving age to begin a career in the egg sector.
Whilst industry continues to invest in automation, it should be noted that farms cannot be fully automated, with the eyes, ears and nose of stockmen and women being the most important in ensuring bird welfare. Automation assists staff, not replaces them. We are all aware that there is a shortage of HGV drivers, not just in food production but across the economy. We have urged the UK Government to invest more in the DVLA to clear the HGV driver examination backlog, as well as the backlog in applications for license renewals that come about as a direct result of successive lockdowns. The visa application process for HGV drivers from abroad should also be prioritised, but there must also be investment in growing the domestic labour force for HGV drivers, and improvement in HGV infrastructure and facilities on major motorways and at services to encourage UK nationals into these roles.
The UK Government needs to address the immediate situation in the short-term, as well as implement policy solutions to avert the long-term consequences, which will be catastrophic for the wider economy, and consumers in general.
Moving on to international trade, the UK Government announced it has reached a trade agreement in principle with New Zealand. Earlier this year, the UK agreed a deal in principle with Australia. The UK-NZ trade deal has been met with dismay by many farming organisations, regarding lamb and beef, with tariff liberalisation which could seriously threaten these sectors here. However, there has been no specific mention of eggs or egg products, which we would not expect to be imported from that far afield. We will of course remain vigilant and continue to speak out against removing tariffs on eggs and egg products that come from systems of production, namely conventional cages, that are illegal in the UK and throughout the EU.
The Conservative MP, Henry Smith is the sponsor of ‘Beatrice’s Bill’, which is currently making its way through the House of Commons, and which seeks to ban enriched colony cages in the UK. It would be an incredibly perverse and completely hypocritical situation if enriched colony cages were to be banned here, but then tariff free eggs and egg products from conventional or enriched cages were to find their way to consumers in the UK.