Labour shortages could lead to irreversible changes to region’s agri-food sector

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Government inaction over labour shortages could lead to changes in the region’s agri-food sector that will be “impossible to reverse”, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership has warned.

In a letter to Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA), the LEP has said the consequences of Brexit and wider economic pressures, combined with a labour crisis, fuel supply issues and rising energy costs are having a “real-time significant impact across the agri-food supply chain”.

The LEP works with businesses across the agri-food and linked sectors, represented through its Board, the New Anglia Agri-Food Industry Council, and the Agri-Food Sector Skills group, and it recently contributed to the EFRA select committee’s inquiry into labour shortages.

In Norfolk and Suffolk, 102,360 people work across the agri-food sector, representing 14.7% of the workforce against a national average of 12.6%. During 2021, vacancies in the region have soared by 123% to levels significantly higher than pre-pandemic, with 5,566 roles being advertised in August.

All parts of the food chain are being affected but particularly seasonal picking roles, meat and poultry processing and logistics. A shortage of butchers is placing huge constraints on the region’s pig industry and one award-winning farmer has been forced to cull his entire herd after 50 years in the industry, amid mounting financial losses and an acute worker shortage.

Turkey farmers are concerned they will struggle to find the additional labour they traditionally hire in the lead-up to Christmas and that UK supermarkets will import birds with a potentially long-term impact on the domestic industry.

In Norfolk & Suffolk, the LEP and the New Anglia Agri-food Skills Group are working closely with employers, the Department for Work & Pensions, and the Further Education sector to promote vacant roles. Exciting regional initiatives in controlled environment farming are also underway which offer potentially better-paid, year-round jobs.

However, they say the dearth of domestic labour is unlikely to be alleviated quickly and access to workers from abroad is needed at least on a short-term basis during this period of transition.

Across agriculture and food processing, seasonal roles, long hours, and rural locations all contribute to making roles unattractive. Employers are working hard to offer more attractive packages, with the average salary of sector roles in the food sector £20,399 in August 2021 – higher than the national average of £18,924. However, they still anticipate a poor take-up of roles even if pay is increased.

Adjustments to shift patterns and other terms and conditions will also take time and are vital in a candidate-led market, with other sectors competing for a limited pool of people looking for work.

In the immediate term, the LEP is calling for an enhanced Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme which gives foreign workers a guaranteed offer of sustained work. It is also seeking clarification of new environmental schemes for farming and a realistic timetable for implementation which will allow farmers to plan for change given the current pressures.

A significant increase in funding for controlled environment farming, automation and robotics is needed in the longer-term to encourage and stimulate innovation and decrease the reliance on workers for manual tasks.

Corrienne Peasgood, Chair of the LEP’s Agri-Food Sector Council, said: “Our members are working hard to deal with these issues, but many are reporting that without greater Government intervention in the short term the effects will be profound – directly to the businesses concerned and, more widely, resulting in food shortages and food price inflation.

“It is clear to us that we are witnessing rapid and transformative change across the sector. The agri-food industry will rise to these challenges and undoubtedly evolve to adjust to the new conditions, but such structural change will take seasons, not weeks. Support as we transition is essential.

“Our innovative and enterprising agri-food sector remains committed to sustainable growth. Without an adequate supply of skilled labour and support, under-pinned by effective policy and support from across Government, we are concerned that we will not be able to deliver the needs of the UK nor capitalise on the vision of ‘global Britain’. Failing to act now will result in changes to the sector that will be impossible to reverse.”

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