UFU: Shortage of migrant labour may hit Christmas in Northern Ireland

The Ulster Farmers Union has written to the Secretary of State requesting an urgent meeting due to concerns about the shortage of seasonal workers and HGV drivers needed to meet annual Christmas demand for fresh food.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Friday, 27th August 2021, 10:11 am
There is a serious shortage of migrant labour in food processing across the UK.

It is understood a number of food processing plants in NI are operating on about 75% of their normal staffing levels due to a combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

The usual supply of seasonal workers from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria is much lower than normal, with Covid and Brexit being blamed for the problem.

The issue is not yet serious but there are concerns about the impact when Christmas demand for vegetables, meat and dairy products begins to ramp up from September onwards.

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An Ulster Farmers Union spokesman told the News Letter: “We have written to Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, Home Secretary Priti Patel, all the Northern Ireland MPs and have requested an urgent meeting with Brandon Lewis about the shortage of seasonal labour and also the shortage of HGV drivers.”The causes appears to be a combination of Brexit and Covid. This has the potential to impact on the agri-food sector and Northern Ireland fresh’s food products in the run up to Christmas.”

The shortage of migrant labour has also caused fruit and vegetable farmers in England difficulties in harvesting crops, according to Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in England.

He said it was impacting on courgette and peppers crops in Chichester and that there are “big issues with pigs backing up on farms” withe slaughterhouses are only operating four days a week because they haven’t got enough butchers to process the pork.

Britain’s meat processing industry, which is two-thirds staffed by non-UK workers, is currently missing about 14,000 people out of a total of 95,000.

He said there are similar problems getting dairy workers in Wales and Bath.

The comments come as supermarket chains Iceland and Tesco complained that supply chain disruptions are getting worse - also expressing concern about the pending Christmas demand.

High street food retailer Greggs became the latest food business hit by supply chain problems this week. McDonald’s, KFC and Nando have also had similar problems. The British Poultry Council last week said the industry was facing a labour crisis due to Brexit.

Retailers and logistics firms have been warning of a shortage of about 100,000 lorry drivers, critical for moving goods around the country, also due to Covid and Brexit.

Supermarkets and hauliers have also warned that shoppers could face long-term higher prices for food as result of systemic changes to the supply chain.

Bosses at the Road Haulage Association have told the PA news agency the “substantial” pay rises offered by firms in need of new drivers could force supermarket bosses to pass the costs on to customers.

Hauliers have warned that there is a shortfall of around 100,000 drivers. This has been driven by thousands of European drivers leaving during the pandemic and not returning, as well as “high numbers” of workers retiring.

The average age of an HGV driver in the UK is 55.

Retailers and restaurants chains, including Nando’s and McDonald’s, have been hit by product shortages as meat packers and other manufacturers have also faced significant worker shortages.

The Government introduced a seasonal worker visa scheme in December for 30,000 workers, primarily for the summer fruit picking season, but meat processors were excluded.

Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, told PA that the shortage of drivers needs urgent Government action and firms have offered better incentives and pay deals to secure potential recruits.

“Certainly drivers’ pay is increasing, often by quite substantial amounts,” he said.

“This in turn is a cost that will need to be passed on, and given the tight profit margins of most haulage operators that means their rates to customers will have to go up.

“In turn, this may mean more of us paying higher prices for goods, services and shopping – including food prices – going forward.”

One supermarket boss also told PA that increasing wages for drivers will result in inflationary pressure for retailers.

“Paying drivers more, in itself isn’t the solution as it is resulting in them making choices about the level of working hours and balancing reduced hours along with weekend working.

“It will also create more inflationary pressure in the sector, which no one clearly wants.

“To ease the pressure we need the Government to quickly allow us to access the EU labour market, whilst the industry must also play its part in increasing the driver pool through fast-track driver programmes and apprenticeships.”

The leading food retailer also warned that the food supply issues facing the UK are now embedded and won’t improve unless direct action in the short, medium and longer term is taken.

It is clear that driver shortage is having a material impact across the entire food supply network but it is equally clear that this is a systemic issue, which can’t be simply fixed.

“The pingdemic certainly didn’t help matters but that isn’t the main issue in play here.”

The Road Haulage Association added that the situation is “not getting better” and warned that the long period of time needed to train new drivers means Government action is needed.

“We wrote to the Prime Minister a month or two back stressing the urgency of this and haven’t heard anything since,” Mr McKenzie said.

“It feels like they want to tough it out but we it means these issues will keep going and going.”

On Tuesday, Tesco chairman John Allan and Iceland managing director Richard Walker were among retail bosses to warn that they have been impacted by a shortage of HGV drivers.

The Government has promised to streamline the process for qualifications and are encouraging more workers to get trained up.

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