Poultry farmers have warned the government is ‘twiddling its thumbs’ while the sector is hit with a serious shortage of workers, with firms reporting an average vacancy rate of over 16% of their total workforce.
This labour crisis could lead to less British food being produced and a ‘two-tier food system’, the British Poultry Council (BPC) has warned.
The poultry meat industry, which produces half of the meat eaten in the UK, is seeing a worker shortage across farming and processing due to the effects of Brexit and food inflation, the group warned.
This is further compounded by a government that ‘continually acts against the best interests of British food producers’.
In particular, the sector is facing a serious shortage of production operatives and processing staff that are classified as ‘low skilled workers’ by the Home Office.
But the BPC explained that these workers played an ‘incredibly important’ role in keeping food supply moving and feeding the nation.
Brexit and the pandemic have meant workers from the EU have returned to their own countries, in turn impacting the UK poultry meat sector.
Over half (60%) of poultry meat workers – 22,800 people – are nationals from European Union countries.
The group’s chief executive, Richard Griffiths said: “Members are telling us that many have been forced to cut back weekly chicken production by 5-10%, all year-round turkey production by 10% and estimate Christmas turkey production to be cut down by a 20%.
“They are saying they are currently producing a reduced range of products for UK customers, and are seriously concerned that the supply of staple chicken products will be impacted. This is all down to labour shortages.”
Mr Griffiths warned that UK food security would be hit with a double whammy of food inflation and being forced to rely on more imported food.
He said this could only lead to a ‘two-tier food system’ where high-quality British food was out of reach for many struggling consumers.
“When the heads of major food companies stand up and say we are in the worst position they have ever seen then it is beholden on our government to fix this catastrophic debacle of their making,” he added.
“If that means relaxing immigration rules or accepting regulatory alignment with the EU, then these are the steps that must be taken to put British food on the road to recovery.”
The industry is calling on government to include poultry meat supply chain workers on the ‘skilled worker list’ and ‘shortage occupation list’ and reduce unnecessary thresholds on salaries and skills.
It also wants the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to be extended to the poultry meat sector to protect seasonal demand for poultry meat and Christmas turkeys.
The BPS also said that its members were ‘determined’ to strike a balance between a skilled workforce and investing in innovation and technology.
Mr. Griffiths said: “As a sector we see multimillion-pound opportunities to invest in our facilities and automation to create a modern, fit for the future food supply chain that carries on putting safe, wholesome, and affordable food on every table.
“However, we cannot do that while the government seems determined to level-down British food production.”\