Food and drink producers are asking for temporary visas to allow European workers to fill some of the half-million vacancies in their sector caused by Brexit and the pandemic.
In a cross-sector report, business leaders demanded urgent action to ensure the UK’s food supply chain can weather disruptions in the coming months.
The call came as pig producers warned they may have to kill up to 70,000 animals due to backlogs at slaughterhouses due to staff shortages.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said new immigration rules had pushed the meat industry into a “complete labor crisis”.
“Their solution is simply to tell companies to hire British workers and then step back,” he said. “But it’s not that simple, at least not in the short term.”
The sector backed a 12-month temporary visa regime that it believes could solve short-term problems, following calls from the road transport industry to help fill a serious shortage of truck drivers.
Post-Brexit changes and the impact of Covid have led Britain to put pressure on the drivers, fruit pickers and slaughterhouse workers – many from Eastern Europe – who have been critical to Britain’s food and agricultural industries.
Analysis by professional services firm Grant Thornton found an average vacancy rate of 13 per cent across the sector, representing more than half of total UK vacancies.
The industry also called for a “permanent, revised and comprehensive” change to the seasonal worker scheme.
Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers Union warned that wage increases and the end of the leave scheme would not be enough to solve the problems.
“Agricultural businesses have gone out of their way to recruit domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labor pool is so limited – instead they only contributed to rising production costs,” he said. .
“It is simplistic to argue that the end of the leave will help many more people make up for this shortage, but workers on leave are concentrated in urban areas and not where many functions in the agri-food sector are. Solving this crisis requires the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many functions are located.”
Earlier in the day, Scottish food groups sent an open letter to the Scottish and British governments calling for temporary visas to deal with “immediate pressure” in the industry.
In the letter signed by groups including the Food and Drink Federation Scotland and the Scottish Seafood Association, business leaders said they were “rapidly approaching a crisis” that would worsen in the run-up to Christmas.
A recent survey by FDF Scotland found that nine out of ten companies struggled to fill vacancies.
Animal welfare organizations warned that labor shortages could lead to worse conditions for animals. The labor shortage has resulted in a surplus of around 70,000 pigs on British farms.
Phil Brooke of Compassion in World Farming said: “We share the concern of the industry that this could cause welfare problems. It is clear that if animals get stuck on the farms and they eventually become overcrowded it becomes a problem for the pigs. “
UK standards limit how densely littered animals can be on farms. Farmers say they may have to kill thousands of healthy pigs if the labor shortage is not addressed.
Mr Brooke said: “If animals are to be culled, it must be done efficiently and humanely. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. We need to make sure we can employ enough people not to let it get to that point.”
The Unite union criticized supermarkets because the shortage of truck drivers is causing problems across the economy.
“The supermarkets nurtured and became increasingly dependent on a supply chain based on high turnover of cheap labor,” said Bev Clarkson, one of the national officials. “That model, which was exploitative, is broken and the supermarkets have to take responsibility for making it fit for purpose.”
Truck drivers working for Tesco have threatened strikes over work and conditions, more severely disrupting food supply chains, which has already led to empty shelves in some stores.