Wyke Farms md Richard Clothier said the supply of labour was a particular concern in rural areas. “Unless you can get immigration and labour in, it could curb the growth of rural businesses,” Clothier warned. Without the contribution of Polish and Portugese workers in some areas, food businesses would have risked grinding to a halt, he said.
A related problem was the lack of housing for rural workers, which exacerbated the transit of young people to urban areas. “Not enough rural housing is being built, which is forcing young people in villages to move to town. So, it is a double-edged challenge, which is quite a problem for food manufacturers,” said Clothier.
‘Not enough rural housing’
Also, the fashion for young graduates to take time off – before, during or after their studies – reduced further the domestic workforce pool. As a result, younger workers were often about 30 years of age before they truly began their career, said Clothier.
New England Seafood group chairman Geoff Eaton stressed the pivotal contribution made a free labour market to many food and drink manufacturing businesses. “The forum talked a lot about immigration and the free market in people,” he said. “The industry absolutely depends on access to the right skills in order to maintain the efficiency of the industry.”
Much more should be done to reach out to young people to persuade them to consider a career in the industry, Eaton argued.
‘Left to the mercies of the market’
BLF chairman Paul Wilkinson also worried about the sector’s dependence on migrant labour. “Talking of what happens if we leave the EU, as well as having no migrant labour to run our industry, our farmers will, no doubt, be left to the mercies of the market,” said Wilkinson, who is also chairman of Thorntons and the National Skills Academy for food and drink.
Dominic Watkins, head of food at law firm and event sponsor DWF, agreed the key contribution of migrant labour was a major theme of the BLF. “We heard from many of the manufacturers in the room about how vital Labour from other European countries has proved to facilitate their businesses growing.”
It was a tragedy that the food and drink manufacturers, who accounted for about 17% of the nation’s gross domestic product, found it so difficult to attract the skills needed from the indigenous workforce, he said. “If we can’t get the people domestically to work in the food industry, one has to wonder economically where it will go in the future.”
The forum was sponsored by law firm DWF, food testing company ALcontrol Laboratories and Lloyds Bank.
Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) told Food Manufacture last month that all migrant workers now working legally in Britain should be allowed to remain here.