Britain’s food and drink industry is calling on the government to introduce a “Covid-19 recovery visa” to recruit overseas workers to ease disruption in the food supply chain, amid warnings from UK pig producers that healthy animals may be culled because of a labour shortage.
Trade associations representing all areas of the UK’s food chain – including the National Farmers’ Union, the Road Haulage Association, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Meat Processors Association – have sent a report to government, urging ministers to act to ensure continuity, quality and choice in Britain’s food supply.
The organisations are proposing a special one-year visa that would allow workers to be recruited for jobs such as HGV drivers, butchers, chefs and other food industry workers.
They want the seasonal worker pilot scheme, which issues permits for non-UK nationals to work as horticulture labourers on farms, made permanent and expanded beyond the current 30,000 annual intake.
Food and drink organisations are on average missing 13% of their workforce, according to the report, resulting in an estimated half a million vacancies across the sector.
Tom Bradshaw, the vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “Businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.”
He added: “A short-term Covid recovery visa, alongside a permanent seasonal workers scheme, would be an effective and, frankly, vital route to help the pressing needs of the industry today. It would also give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability”.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “Without fast action the labour challenges will continue. If they do, we can expect unwelcome consequences such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices, and reduced growth across the domestic food chain.”
The cross-industry report comes as the National Pig Association (NPA) warned that as many as 70,000 pigs that should have already been taken to slaughter are stranded on UK farms.
The excess number of pigs on UK farms is growing by 15,000 each week, according to the NPA,with about a quarter fewer leaving for slaughter than would be expected in normal times.
Animals ready for slaughter but stuck on farms require feeding and housing, causing financial difficulties for farmers. These large pigs are growing by about a kilogram a day, the NPA says, with many becoming too large for the slaughterhouses to handle.
“For the second time in under a year the pig sector is facing some really tough choices, which we shouldn’t have to be taking, as demand for British pork is still strong,” said Zoe Davies, the chief executive of the NPA.
“If government doesn’t take action, perfectly healthy pigs will end up being destroyed and wasted and more pork will have to be imported from the EU.”
Meat-processing plants were first hit by a shortage of workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the eastern European workers employed in the sector returned to their home countries and have not come back.
Davies said farmers were struggling to find space for the surplus animals.
“I am getting calls every day from members saying we are in a mess,” she said. “People are using cattle sheds, temporary accommodation outdoors, anything they can do to alleviate the pressure on farm, but there just doesn’t seem to be an end”
Britain’s meat-processing industry, which is two-thirds staffed by non-UK workers, is missing about 15% of its workforce of about 95,000 people usually employed in the sector, according to the British Meat Processors Association.