Vanishing Workers

A frame from a hive of honey bees with capped and open cells and workers
Frame from a hive of honey bees – photo by John Pons; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Britons Leaving Food Production Jobs

Higher prices and some empty shelves in supermarkets are said to be caused by the loss of workers from the EU. The Grocer recently published an analysis of which sectors are most affected, taking the data from ONS, in comparisons of past years with 2021. One statistic that stands out is that British workers too are vanishing in some sectors.

Let’s look at the statistics:

Meat-processing shows the most outstanding losses, with EU workers reduced by 51% and UK workers by 35%. Growing non-perennial crops (the green stuff) lost 72% of EU workers and 13 % from the UK. Fish processing, a smaller sector, lost 100% of EU workers but gained only 19% from the UK.

In Fruit and Veg processing, 49% of EU workers left while only 5% from the UK took up these jobs. Bakery remained stable with UK bakers but 37% of EU workers left. In beverage manufacturing, 47% of EU workers left while only 17% moved in from the UK. Pubs and bars are very hard hit with 81% of EU workers leaving and only 3% gain from the UK. Restaurants show a minus for both EU and UK. 

What’s to Be Done?

So what is being done about this? Where there is labour shortage, one remedy is to improve pay and conditions so that workers are attracted to that sector. That usually means price increases for the shopper. Many farms contract with a supermarket chain in advance of the production cycle, and the supermarkets notoriously drive very hard bargains. Farmers have to decide in advance whether it is worthwhile even planting a fresh crop if it is likely that some of it will be lost for lack of harvest workers.

The Government has increased the quotas of seasonal workers, now allowed into the UK if recruited by one of the three approved labour agencies. But the farmers say that this is not producing enough workers yet. The Government has also tried to nudge unemployed British towards these vacant jobs by the recent change in the benefits rule compelling those who have been searching in vain for more than a month in their usual line of work to take up vacancies in any other sector.

No Job for a British Lass or Lad

But is it likely that the unemployed from the big cities will be able to take up these jobs on farms? Transport is a major problem.  So the farms sometimes provide on-site living, in caravans or chalets, for seasonal workers. Or if the workers board in hostels in the town, as EU workers used to in some places, they provide a minibus to the fields. But it is unlikely that a British worker would fit these arrangements and driving their own cars to the fields would add extra costs to the job. 

The age-groups involved in the different sectors are also of interest. Farm management has the biggest group of over-fifties. Hospitality in bars and pubs has the biggest group of young workers. This is a sector much more accessible to young Britons, and is also attractive to those who come on the Youth visa from Australia or New Zealand.  So I think it can be predicted that hospitality from the Brexit hit will recover from labour shortages much quicker than farming. 

How Do They Cope?

When asked how they plan to cope with labour shortages, there was an interesting range of responses:

The option “to automate” applies only to certain crops.

Automation means investment in very expensive machinery, sometimes imported. Strawberry picking robots are manufactured in Belgium for example. It is rather uncertain at this stage whether British firms can rise to the Brexit challenge of agricultural robots.

For meat-processing, the abattoirs are already highly mechanised, but whether this is a sector that can attract more British workers seems doubtful. Looking at the table above, there seems to be an almost equal percentage wanting to use more agency labour (which they have to do if they need foreign seasonal workers) and those who will use less (presumably relying on local recruitment). 

Just Give Up!

The percentages of those who are giving up on British food production is rather shocking: 16% are unviable and 13% plan to move partially overseas.

These drastic changes are what the Brexit economists predicted. Minford et al in 2016 stated that British farming would suffer shocks from Brexit, but would have to adapt or yield food production to more efficient farmers overseas. Save British Farming campaigns against this reduction of British farming forced to yield to lower standards of some of the potential importers.

Scanning the Shelves

The above statistics were reproduced in The Grocer for readers who are interested mainly in how these labour shortages affect the stocks in the shops. As shoppers we are all eagerly scanning the shelves for changes in stock. Do I detect less French cheese on the shelves now? Is there less pork on the shelf at a time when pigs are being culled on farms due to the lack of abattoir workers? Will there be fewer union jacks on the plastic-wrapped green veg because more of it will be grown overseas, where they still have the workers to harvest it?

Kent Bylines found the information for this article in “The Grocer”. But to get regular access we have to SUBSCRIBE, which costs money. Will you help us retain this wider interest of Kent Bylines by donating towards our subscription fund?