Sufficient quality labour in food and farming has been flagged as a major Brexit challenge. But let’s put it bluntly: without access to labour – UK or migrant – we will struggle to feed ourselves.
After a continual hammering of the message Government say they ‘get it’. Do they really? If they do, then what are they going to do about it?
Nobody in the sector needs to be told about the devastation of their business and industry if we can’t source enough labour to ensure skilled farmers and processors for the future. We know we’re not alone in this, but we probably aren’t doing enough to get British meat and livestock production at the head of the line.
Recently, figures were produced from ONS statistics summarising the percentage of EU workers in various stages of food production. Agriculture came in at around 17% and food manufacturing at 29%. Now these are figures the poultry meat sector does not recognise. For us, some slaughterhouses are pushing 90% of EU labour, which is reflected in the red meat sector.
This puts us at the extreme of the debate, and makes it crucial for us to have our own voice as part of the wider food and farming push for a solution. We have to accept that Government do ‘get it’, which makes the next steps very important indeed.
Departments, Ministers, and officials have taken pains to emphasise they are in listening mode. So far this has meant listening to problems, but we now need to make them listen to solutions. The vacuum is starting to be filled with ideas, some sensible, some outlandish, and some impractical for our sector.
There will be limitations in some form on migrant labour. We need to accept this and look for solutions from that starting point. Quotas are being touted alongside the need to justify that the labour has a job to fill. We need to decide what system is going to work best for us such as a resurrection of Tier 3 immigration, and what we can bring to the table. Skilled jobs, guaranteed training and qualifications, economic contribution, and feeding the nation are all positives for us.
We can help ourselves by increasing the appeal of the poultry meat sector, for both UK and migrant workers. Meat processing is well down the list of appealing jobs, and we need to change that perception through promoting what the sector can offer. An additional problem with migrant workers is that as gaps appear in the more ‘glamorous’ sectors then we’ll lose our EU workers to more appealing jobs. When it comes to EU workers we’re going to face a shortage due to economic reasons and political reasons, and then we’ll be battling other sectors for what labour there is.
A big plus for the poultry meat sector is that consumers want British food. If British food production is to grow and increase self-sufficiency, then it needs the infrastructure behind it to deliver. For a large part that means skilled labour, regardless of nationality, committed to producing safe, wholesome, and nutritious poultry meat.
A version of this article first appeared in Poultry News