To solve its labor shortage, the UK food industry is importing more workers

Where are the workers?
Where are the workers?
Image: REUTERS/Peter Cziborra/File Photo
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The labor shortage in the UK is particularly apparent in its food industry. McDonald’s milkshakes, Nando’s chicken, and, potentially, Christmas turkeys are all among the items made scarce in Britain because of a lack of workers.

To alleviate the labor pressure confronting the post-Brexit industry, this weekend, the UK government said 5,000 foreign truck drivers and 5,500 poultry workers will be able to work in the UK for three months. The short-term recruitment will begin in October and last until Dec. 24.

The UK food industry relies on migrant workers. Of the 2 million European Union nationals working in the UK, about a fifth of them work in the food and beverage supply chain, according to a report from the Food and Drink Federation, an industry group. The migrant workers are particularly represented in manufacturing, shipping, and food services. Most seasonal agriculture also depends on EU workers, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania.

But the government warned that the new visas are only part of the solution. Employers must also do their part by raising wages and improving working conditions, said Grant Shapps, UK transportation secretary, in a statement.

The long-standing issues of low pay and poor working conditions of the food industry

Not all shortages are the same, wrote Alan Manning, a professor of economics at London School of Economics, in a blog. For the food industry, the problem comes down to poor pay or working conditions, which means as the industry struggles to compete for local workers, it needs to turn to the government to provide them with a source of migrant labor.

The industry says the lack of necessary skills among workers or negative perceptions of the field, rather than low pay, is to blame for the shortages. Raising pay could also lead to higher prices and reduce demand for the goods and services, Manning said. But the industry has had long-standing issues with recruitment and retention, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Around 1.9 million people are still on furlough, which is an unpaid leave of absence, according to the most recent data from the Office of National Statistics.

Exiting the EU also plays a factor. It is difficult to measure migration data, given the main source of it—the International Passenger Survey, which is used to measure immigration flows—was suspended due to the pandemic. What we do know is that the total employment of EU nationals in the UK fell from 2.4 million in the three months from January to March 2020 to 2.2 million in the three months from April to June 2021, according to the latest numbers from the Office of National Statistics.

But there are other factors behind the worker shortage as well, such as an aging workforce. Over the next 10 years, 25% of the food and drink manufacturing workforce is due to retire, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

There are also still questions of whether the workers will take advantage of the visas and the long-term solutions. As Manning notes, as the economy reopens, it may be hard to persuade workers to come back since some workers left the UK to move closer to their family and where the cost of living is lower.