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Opinion: This is Brexit - labor

Richard Griffiths, head of the British Poultry Council (BPC), warns that the continued exclusion of non-UK workers in the processing and farming sector is turning a labor squeeze into an ongoing crisis.

30 June 2021, at 8:30am

In a previous post I outlined the minimum actions we need from Government in order to give us a fighting chance of having a sustainable workforce. Since then numerous sectors and businesses have made it crystal clear that they are facing the same labor crisis as us – the ongoing loss of non-UK workers and the inability to replace them, whether with UK or non-UK labor. Poultry is half the meat we eat in this country and demand for our quality British produce has rarely been higher. Yet the birds we are growing are 5% to 10% down since Easter simply because we do not have the people to process them.

I am sure that nobody would admit that when they voted to leave the EU they wanted to compromise food security, raise the cost of food production, and reduce access to food. Yet that is exactly what Brexit – in its ideology and its application – is bringing us to. Such a binary choice of leave/remain cannot possibly cope with the complexity of systems needed to sustain a country. Labor is one part of that system but the effect of not having a sufficient workforce is felt throughout the economy.

When many industries and their supply chains are facing the same problem then we will have huge difficulties. Hospitality is getting much of the media attention but work backwards down that chain: logistics are compromised because of a shortage of lorry drivers, food processors and manufacturers cannot get enough people in factories, farms do not have the people to pick and catch. Mirror this in health and social care and the UK has massive sectors that cannot continue to operate at the level needed for the nutrition and health of its citizens.

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Entry level roles (a Level 2 qualification) are where we are seeing the greatest difficulty. We generally operate in areas of high local employment so there is a limit to availability of UK workers [paying more or offering incentives are not solutions if people are not there in the first place], and there is negligible appetite from UK workers to move from other parts of the country. When it comes to non-UK labor – either from the EU or further afield – we have seen reducing numbers willing to come to the UK, and the dual immigration barriers of salary and skill, along with the cost of the process, are prohibitive. The UK has become a less welcoming environment to overseas workers and perhaps more crucially the drop in value of GBP has made it a less appealing prospect.

If this sounds suspiciously like…for want of a nail the shoe was lost…then yes, it does. If we cannot grow and manufacture our own food we risk hunger and reduced food security, but that is not all. We open ourselves up to compromising food standards in order to compete, we lose our place as a leading animal welfare nation, and if we do not have product then we having nothing to trade as Global Britain. Government has made commitments in all these areas yet it cannot deliver any of them without a workforce. Labor – specifically non-UK labor – is the "nail" here.

Brexit was supposedly about control and sovereignty, and this should mean our Government doing what is right for this country even if it means an aspect of Brexit ideology has to be set aside. Yet you cannot fix a problem if you do not acknowledge the problem and we are a long way from the Government showing the required level of maturity for honest reflection. The new immigration rules are ours and ours alone, the application of our sovereignty, and the Government could change them tomorrow if it wanted to.

We have always talked about food supply as a national security issue, but if people going hungry and whole sectors in jeopardy are not enough reason for Government to fix this problem then we are in for a very tough time. Brexit put a fire in their belly of its believers, but the rest of us need food.

Words: Richard Griffiths