The Government announced it was to extend its seasonal workers scheme to pork butchers, with eligible butchers able to apply until the end of the year for a six month visa.
Environment secretary George Eustice said the package of measures was in response to the widely reported struggles of the pork industry – the pressures of COVID-19, Brexit and labour shortages has led to thousands of pigs being culled in fields.
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the announcement would provide some welcome relief for pig farmers and acknowledged the effort Defra had put in to win this concession.
Bigger issues remain
“We are under no illusion that this is an emergency measure to solve the immediate animal welfare issue that’s playing out in the pig industry,” said A BMPA spokesman. “But, the bigger labour issue that is currently constraining production in the rest of the meat industry still remains and is getting steadily worse.
“We continue to make the case to Government for short term help in the form of pragmatic controlled access to experienced workers from abroad to plug the gaps in the workforce. This would give us the breathing room to continue our work to attract home-grown workers into the industry and adjust to the new post-Brexit and post-COVID labour market conditions.”
The National Farmers Union (NFU) said it was critical that the scheme was up and running as soon as possible to ease the backlog created caused by the lack of abattoir workers.
Acute labour shortages
However, NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw pointed out that labour shortages across the food supply chain remained acute and continued engagement with government was essential to solve these wider issues.
“The food supply chain remains united in its view that a temporary 12-month Covid Recovery Visa is needed to enable the entire food and drink sector to recruit for essential roles, alongside an urgent announcement on the extension of the Seasonal Workers pilot scheme,” Bradshaw added.
“I would also urge retailers to play their part in supporting the sector at this time by sourcing British pork and I would ask the public to make a conscious effort to look out for British pork when they are doing their shopping to back British farming.”
NFU Scotland stated: “Labour shortages across all sectors of agriculture are causing serious damage to the industry. NFU Scotland and other stakeholders have constantly raised this at the highest level.”
“We welcome the fact the UK Government have at last listened to the concerns of the industry and recognised the problem. The temporary visas and private storage aid announced last night by DEFRA are a step in the right direction and will help alleviate some of the immediate concerns in the pig sector.
However, the 800 visas announced do not address the 5,000 shortfall, and for only six months are a short term solution. There still needs to be a longer-term plan put in place to ensure that Scottish food producers can continue to provide the quality, sustainable food with high animal welfare standards that our consumers have come to expect, rather than rely on imports that put our own animal health at serious risk.”
The union called for retailers to support British and Scottish beef in stores.
Pork levy holiday
The latest visa announcement follows the news that England's meat levy body the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Scotland's counterpart, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), have granted a pork levy holiday during November 2021.
The two organisations took the decision in response to the continued build-up of pigs on farms as a result of lack of production staff, particularly for primary processing, falling prices and high production costs.
The recommendation was agreed by ministers in both countries, with the levy holiday across England and Scotland amounting to just under £1m.
Chairman of the AHDB pork board Mike Sheldon said: “These challenges, in particular a shortage of skilled workers, come on top of pressure on margins largely due to rising feed costs. These issues are extremely concerning and therefore require industry-wide action to prevent the situation deteriorating into an animal welfare issue.
Support for meat processors
“AHDB is already undertaking work to help the sector, including providing independent evidence to Government setting out the seriousness of the situation, and looking at how together we can support meat processors to ease the supply of labour. As part of its wider approach, the AHDB pork board has agreed to a one-month levy holiday to help ease the burden of the financial pressures faced by levy-payers.”
QMS chair, Kate Rowell said: “After discussions between the QMS Board and AHDB the decision was made to introduce a levy holiday in November for pig producers.
The pig sector plays an important role in Scotland’s agricultural industry and this relief will help support producers as they work tirelessly to look after the animals in their care.”
Meanwhile, temporary visas will not be enough to solve the food supply chain problems caused by staff shortages, according to trade groups.