Culture shock

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Culture shock
A raft of new training courses and programmes has been developed to help employers cope with their increasingly multicultural workforces. Rebecca Green takes a look

Despite all the efforts of industry bodies to attract interest in food and drink manufacturing, there is still a severe skills shortage, which means employers are having to look further afield for their staff. More and more overseas nationals are being recruited to fill the posts that it seems UK residents just aren't interested in.

While this shift has inevitably presented some challenges to employers, many are now embracing the changes and seeking ways to better manage their diverse workforces.

In the East Midlands, the Food and Drink Forum has become the first organisation in the area to offer a training course in cultural diversity, which it hopes will help firms to deal with the implications of employing workers from a range of different countries.

The three-day course, which has been endorsed by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), forms part of the forum's cultural diversity programme and was prompted by the recent influx of overseas employees to the region's food and drink sector.

"Virtually every form of industry in the UK that has got jobs such as we have in food handling, like construction and primary health care, is now dependent on European Union (EU) labour," says forum manager Keith Taylor. "The big cities in our region have had a culturally diverse population for many years, but recently in some areas, such as Lincolnshire and in smaller towns and rural places, there has been a large influx of workers from EU countries.

"This raises a number of issues for managers, supervisors and team leaders, such as communication, dealing with cultural traditions, and how to foster a climate of inclusion."

The forum's course, targeted mainly at team leaders, supervisors and managers, aims to help firms overcome any potential conflicts and difficulties, while aiming to reduce issues of 'difference' and concentrate on similarities instead, adds Taylor.

Following pilot runs last year, two courses successfully took place in February with more booked for March, May and August this year. There is also a one-day human resources managers' course, which focuses on employment law in relation to different cultures as well as more general issues surrounding cultural diversity.

ILM chief executive Kim Parish believes the course will give the food and drink sector in the region a real boost. "As the EU opens its employment borders it is important that managers and leaders understand the key issues behind good working relationships - wherever their employees are from."

Take-up has been very high, says the forum's learning and skills manager Liz Pattison, with both the three-day event and the human resources course providing a good forum for discussion.

"We found a variety of issues came out of it," says Pattison, "from things like jealousy if a migrant worker was promoted ahead of a UK worker, to issues where female supervisors weren't getting respect or a response from male migrant workers - even down to toilets being destroyed because they don't face the right way for certain religions. Some manufacturers said they had now installed toilets facing the correct way. It can be a bit of minefield really."

The course not only covers the moral aspects of such issues, but also the legal side, she adds.

Ready meals manufacturer Fenland Foods, part of Northern Foods, now has up to 15 different nationalities among its 900-strong workforce; yet four years ago it was rare for anyone working at the Grantham company to originate from outside the East Midlands.

In a bid to accommodate its most recent employees and learn how to deal with previously unseen issues like cultural practices and religious faiths, Fenland Foods took part in one of the pilot courses. All supervisors now attend a managing diversity course, which looks at issues such as how to accommodate prayer breaks and how religious beliefs relating to food affect an employee's work.

"If we can make small changes that will help enlighten our workforce to cultural diversity and foster a climate of inclusion then we will do it," explains human resources and training officer Richard Gray.

Similarly, a new training course on equal opportunities has been introduced at Nottinghamshire-based Greencore Sandwiches, which employs around 2,000 people - at least 200 of which are Polish.

Human resources graduate Laura Daughtrey devised the course after attending one of the forum's pilot sessions. It is being taught to line management and has been endorsed by the ILM.

"We were looking at how we could support the growth of employees from Poland and elsewhere and make sure that we embraced their culture," says Daughtrey.

"We recognised that our managers needed some key skills development and they have really taken to the course."

Meanwhile, Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, has devised a new workshop aimed at helping workers to share best practice on managing cultural diversity within the workforce.

Agri-food skills brokerage service Humber Group recently requested one of the interactive workshops, as member Cheryl Binyon explains: "This kind of practical support did not exist before and it definitely responds to a growing, urgent need."

And John Nixon, skills development manager at Improve, adds: "If processes to manage diversity are not introduced, then problems can arise from a lack of understanding, which could lead to employers inadvertently breaking employment and discrimination laws."

It is not just production jobs that are being snapped up by overseas workers - a shortage of UK drivers means many companies are now looking further afield, particularly to Eastern Europe to fill posts.

In response to this and to the increasing number of migrant workers in the food chain, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) has tried to ensure its Trade Assurance Scheme for Combinable Crops (TASCC) drivers checklist is more accessible by translating it into Latvian, Polish and Russian.

The checklist gives the main requirements of the AIC Code of Practice for road haulage and includes the haulage exclusion list set out by food safety regulations.

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