Food firms seek alternative labour methods

By Aidan Fortune

- Last updated on GMT

Angela Coleshill, competitiveness director, FDF: ‘Government must move swiftly to set up the new registration system and provide clear guidance to workers and businesses’
Angela Coleshill, competitiveness director, FDF: ‘Government must move swiftly to set up the new registration system and provide clear guidance to workers and businesses’
Lack of clarity for the post-Brexit status of non-UK workers in the food industry has led to panic in the sector and the investigation of alternative labour methods. Can they cut it?

A thriving food and drink manufacturing sector is only as good as its workforce, and given the UK’s reliance on non-UK EU labour, we could be in serious trouble when we eventually exit the EU.

According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), there are more than 117,000 EU workers in the UK food and drink manufacturing sector, making up almost one-third of the workforce. But the FDF believes that even more will be needed over the next six years.

Angela Coleshill, competitiveness director at the FDF, explains: “Our industry has faced a skills gap for some time. Food and drink manufacturing will require 140,000 new workers by 2024 to meet the needs of a growing sector requiring more highly technical skills, and to manage demographic change.”

A recent report by the Migration Advisory Committee, which collated the needs and concerns of UK businesses has done nothing to allay her fears, especially as it didn’t come up with a concrete plan for migrant workers post-Brexit.

“We need to be able to attract talent to ensure we remain a world-leading sector,”​ Coleshill says. “Food and drink firms often plan their workforce needs more than a year in advance and will need to know what the future immigration system will look like to begin preparing.

“Short-term, the Government must move swiftly to set up the new registration system and provide clear guidance to workers and businesses, so that our valued EU workforce and those arriving during transition have the security they need,”​ she adds.

Meat sector impact

As is often the case, it’s the meat sector that could see the biggest impact. The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) says its members report that between 65% and 70% of their workforce are non-EU nationals and that the sector could be in for an employment and bureaucracy reckoning, even if post-Brexit access is granted.

“We’re very dependent on non-UK labour,”​ warns BMPA chief executive Nick Allen. “The feeling we’re getting is that Government has got the message and come up with a system where we’ll have access to that labour, but we’ll have to go through more bureaucracy to get it.”

The Migration Advisory Committee’s own research corroborates these fears. In its report, employers expressed concerns that the current Tier 2 visa process, which is used for employing non-EU workers for skilled professions could be used as the basis for EU citizens looking to work in the UK.

Of course, there may be other solutions; significant investment has gone into automation in plants that can perform the dual purpose of lowering staff overheads and making sure there are enough hands on deck, albeit robotic ones, even in the middle of the night to make best use of assets. But is the UK food and drink industry ready for the rise of the robots?

Replacing human workers

Despite recent technological improvements, Allen doesn’t believe that it is where it needs to be in order to replace human workers. “If there is no access to the non-UK labour market, major changes would have to be made, and I’m not sure we’re at that stage in terms of robots working in plants.”

Another potential fallout of this labour issue includes the consolidation of sites and their workforces, which we’ve seen a lot of over recent years.

In the last month alone, Tulip, Müller and 2 Sisters all announced plans to close sites or divisions, with 2 Sisters citing a “simplification of operations”.​ While this may be a devastating solution for the workforce, as food and drink manufacturers face an unknown future in terms of labour, their hand may be forced until the migrant worker situation is resolved.

Current state of play

So far, nothing has changed. EU citizens already here will have the right to carry on working in the UK after Brexit, but it’s the future workforce that could face problems.

The Government goes to great pains to provide reassurance that “leaving the EU does not mean the end of migration between the EU and the UK” and ​that any new framework will be “designed to support the UK economy, as well as enable businesses and key public sector workforces to access the skills they need”.

Those who enter the UK during the transition phase, which lasts from 29 March 2019 until 31 December 2020, will enjoy the same rights as those currently working and living here.

However, there will be a registration system during this time to help the Government “prepare for a future immigration framework”. After that, all bets are off. 

Looking beyond transition phases, Government is still considering a “range of options for what the future immigration framework should look like”.

It plans to use evidence, gathered by the Migration Advisory Committee, which is due to report back on EU migration this September to create this framework. Once it has received this evidence, it will set out proposals for future arrangements “in due course”.

Related topics: People & Skills, Meat, poultry & seafood

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