Independent Review into Labour Shortages: Industry response

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

The Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain made recommendations for solving labour issues in food and drink
The Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain made recommendations for solving labour issues in food and drink

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John Shropshire OBE's Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain has been met with cautious optimism by members of the food and drink industry.

The report​ laid out 10 key recommendations for Government in order to tackle labour challenges within the food and drink industry. These included the implementation of a comprehensive strategy to enhance sector attractiveness, investment into domestic workers and the incentivisation of automation within the sector. A full list can be found in the box below.

This exploration has thrown light on the pivotal challenges this indispensable sector faces, including issues related to workforce recruitment and retention, skills development, and automation,” ​said Shropshire.

“England’s food supply chain is an extraordinary network that is fundamental to the nation’s economy and the security of its citizens. Yet, we face significant obstacles in recruiting and retaining a competent workforce in this vital sector. Factors such as low unemployment rates, shifting labour market dynamics, and diminished access to migrant workers have exacerbated these challenges”.

“Every job within the food supply chain is essential and should never be dismissed as menial or unskilled. Each role ensures the smooth operation of the entire system, from farmers and agricultural workers to food processors and distributors. All contribute to producing and delivering the food that sustains our nation and allows us to thrive.”

Industry response

Members of the food and drink industry came out in force to share their opinions on the recommendations listed in the report.

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers’ (AIMS’) said the struggle to recruit labour had already forced its members to shut their doors and if the recommendations in the report aren’t adopted there would be continued closures across the food and drink sector for years to come.

“AIMS members have reported having to turn away both domestic and export sales opportunities owing to their struggles to recruit and retain labour,”​ said a spokesman for the group.

“Reading the report’s recommendations in relation to seasonal workers, it is time that there was some flexibility put in place whereby instead of simply having seasonal poultry workers in the run up to Christmas to have instead seasonal meat and poultry workers for the summer and the run up to Christmas.”

Seasonal workers review

“We noted that yesterday yet another ‘Seasonal Worker Visa Inquiry: Call for Evidence’ was launched by the Migration Advisory Committee, which closes for responses on 19th September 2023. Another one! By the time they have gone through the responses the time for 2023’s seasonal workers will have passed.”

AIMS welcomed recommendation two in the report – the replacement of the Seasonal Worker visa scheme pilot be announced by the end of 2023 to ensure industry has enough workers to maintain domestic food production levels – as the group had been lobbying for a considerable time for the English Language Requirement to be relaxed and urged the Government to take immediate action.

“As regards the other nine recommendations we accept that some will take time to deliver but we must start now if we are to build on the country’s food security and be part of the delivery of the Government’s ambitious target for £1trillion of exports by 2023,”​ the spokesman concluded.

Outcompeting the competition

Commenting on today’s report, Provision Trade Federation director general Rod Addy said increased access to, and communication of, funding for robotics and automation is needed to help the sector outcompete its counterparts in other countries.

“This report acknowledges that, as well as providing an essential plan for managing staff levels as companies work towards that goal,”​ he added. “This involves a realistic recognition that the domestic labour pool must be supplemented by migrant workers to sustain and grow the industry’s contribution to UK GDP and food security.

“Transforming the Apprenticeship Levy into the Skills and Development Levy is a vital recommendation to deliver flexible learning that’s more accessible to SMEs. And the call for better data on labour and skills in the food industry is a must to enable employers to engage in better workforce planning.

“This review is a crucial outcome of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy. Any Government committed to levelling up the food and drink sector as a powerhouse of investment and jobs, as befits the UK’s largest manufacturing employer would do well to heed its advice.”

Unprecedented challenges

Food and Drink Federation chief executive Karen Betts welcomed the report and its focus on the “unprecedented challenges​” the industry faces in recruiting talent, upskilling the workforce and investing in technology while “maintaining a sustainable and resilient supply chain that ensures a wide range of nutritious food and drink is available across the UK at affordable prices”.

“We are looking forward to working rapidly and constructively with Government to progress the report’s ten recommendations, to bolster the pipeline of skills into our vital industry, bear down on inflation and grow the economy – consistent with the Prime Minister’s goals,”​ Betts added.

Tom Bradshaw, National Farmers Union deputy president, said the independent panel had recognised that action was needed to improve British farmers’ access to a skilled and motivated workforce.

“Our own recent survey looking at worker shortages across the agriculture industry shows that 41% of respondents reduced the amount of food they produced due to being unable to recruit the essential workforce needed,”​ said Bradshaw.

“The horticulture and poultry sectors have been severely impacted by worker shortages in recent years, and we welcome the panel’s recommendation to secure the Seasonal Workers Scheme beyond 2024. We have been calling for a long-term five-year rolling scheme to guarantee businesses have the certainty they need to continue producing food.”

“We must now work together to solve the labour challenges impacting the industry, which is a brilliant one to work in and has many opportunities across all levels. I look forward to hearing the government’s response to the panel’s review and recommendations, which are essential in giving businesses the confidence to invest in our food security.”

Meanwhile, representatives from across the meat processing industry descended on the Butcher’s Hall in London on Tuesday (June 27) to learn about Meat Industry 2.0 and the role of automation and cultured meat in the future of the sector​ at the British Meat Processor’s Association conference 2023.

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Re: Labour shortage in food supply chain

Posted by Mayowa Afolayan,

There is more than enough skilled labour to work in the UK food supply chain especially within the migrant population. These are highly skilled food professionals with quality years of experience.

However, there are too many barriers which disenfranchised these Skilled worker, these include;
1. Hiring manager in the food industry inaudibly demanding for UK experience.
2. Refusal to offer sponsorship visa to qualified and experienced food professionals
3. Poor renumeration and poor working conditions.
4. Lack of process automation and entrenched manual operations.
5. Gaslighting highly skilled professionals and loosing many of them to Health care homes (which mostly offer visa sponsorship).

I really doubt it if the industry is ready to close the gap. They need to crush the aforementioned barriers if improvement is desired.

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Posted by Mekonnen,

We see that hundreds apply for every vacancy and not sure where the labour shortage is. Nearly 1.3 million new people come to UK annually and compete with locals for every job. These consist of 700,000 foreign students coming to UK and getting open working visas after graduating plus 600,000 other new peope migrating to UK annually per Gov's own admisison). It is rather the eratic nature of the jobs and the employers which makes it difficult to retain labour. Wages and working hours are low and people can't pay rent and support their and their family's lives wich such jobs and wages. Employers have to think of arranging more stable & fairly paying jobs. Also, you can just get away with hiring people for a month or two when your sales peak and then fire them like trash when sales deline or when seasons change, and then complain there is labour shorage.

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