“We want to ensure that people recognise you cannot rely on importing an endless supply of cheap labour in order to maintain a competitive edge,” Gove told FoodManufacture.co.uk in answer to a question at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday January 5. Listen to minister’s full answer by playing the short audio tape above.
Gove said: “Ultimately, if you rely for too long on relatively cheap labour, then your business is likely to be overtaken in competitiveness by those who invest in more capital intensive and productive methods of producing or processing food.”
‘Rely for too long on relatively cheap labour’
However, he also made clear the government wanted to ensure that all parts of the food chain had access to the labour it required to secure a return on investment.
“We must think about how to make sure the labour market works effectively so businesses can continue to secure a proper return on their investment,” he told conference delegates.
“That means not just a flexible migration policy overall, but, as we leave the EU, ensuring access to agricultural labour.” He also highlighted the importance of farmers’ access to seasonal labour.
But technological change had reached “an inflection point”, he said. “Developments in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning mean that processes which would have required the intellect and effort of thousands of humans over many hours in the past can be accomplished automatically by digital means in seconds.”
‘Developments in big data’
In a wide-ranging conference speech, Gove also revealed food manufacturers and farmers were helping government devise a new “gold-standard” scheme to measure food quality, in a bid to boost exports after Brexit, and that support payments to farmers would remain at their current level in England until the general election of 2022, as part of a transition period.
National Farmers Union President Meurig Raymond welcomed the minister’s pledge to champion high quality British food at home and abroad and promises to maintain farm support payments at EU levels for five years.
“A transition period that allows time to prepared properly for the introduction of a new agricultural policy is also welcome …”, said Raymond. That would allow an assessment to be made of the impact of Brexit on UK farming, trade in raw ingredients, access to a competent and reliable workforce and on the regulatory environment, he added.
Meanwhile, read FoodManufacture.co.uk later this week to learn why US farm trade boss Ted McKinney warned British journalists not to ask him about chlorine-treated chicken.
‘Cheap imported labour’ spells danger, warns Michael Gove
“Industries which come to rely on importing cheap labour run the risk of failing to invest in the innovation required to become genuinely more productive. Labour intensive production inevitably lags behind capital intensive production.”