Labour shortage puts UK food sector at risk - claim

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Immigration United kingdom European union Uk

Falling numbers of migrants could have a disastrous effect on the UK food and drink sector, warns a new study from the skills council for the industry, Improve.

A majority of recent migrant workers into the UK have come from Poland, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic, according to the report commissioned by the council. Its study claims that as economic conditions in the UK decline, the flow of migrants to the UK from these countries is anticipated to fall.

According to figures from Improve, foreign nationals make up an estimated 10 per cent of the workforce of the UK food and drink manufacturing sector, which has a turnover of around £70bn.

The council said that Polish workers in particular, who make up around half (53.3 per cent) of the 72,000 migrant workers in the industry, are beginning to return home or head to other emerging economies to work.

Declining numbers

The study, the Role of Migrant Workers in the Food and Drink Manufacturing Industry​, found that a third (33.2 per cent) of food and drink employers now have staff from overseas, down from the 48 per cent estimated by a smaller study in 2005.

The report concludes that this decline correlates with government figures which show a four per cent fall in applications from nationals of eastern European EU member states to work in the food and drink industry between 2006 and 2007.

“The industry will have to look seriously at how it can maintain its productivity if numbers fall significantly,”​ said James Matthews, chief executive of Improve.

“The issue is that food and drink companies turn to migrant labour because they cannot find staff in the numbers they need at home,”​ he added.

Productivity reliance

Half (47.1 per cent) of food and drink manufacturers surveyed in the Improve report said that a fall in the number of migrant workers would leave them with vacancies, and more than a quarter (28.3 per cent) said it would hamper productivity.

According to Matthews, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink sector admitted that its meat industry would collapse without a supply of migrant workers.

Debate urged

Improve is urging ministers from the Home Office and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) to meet food and drink sector leaders to discuss the potential impact of the government’s immigration and skills policies on the future productivity of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector.

“Ministers need to be fully aware of the contribution migrant workers make to the food and drink industry when it comes to developing policies on immigration,”​ claims Matthews.

He said that while workers from Romania and Bulgaria are now emigrating in much larger numbers than those from Poland, visa restrictions mean they cannot come to the UK to do the same jobs the Polish workers were doing.

According to Matthews, there is growing evidence that employers were responding to falling numbers of migrant workers with the study showing that 85.1 per cent of manufacturers who employed overseas staff now use long-term permanent contracts in an effort to retain workers.

Valuable asset

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and beverage manufacturers, said that migrant workers are a valuable asset to the UK food and drink sector and that it supports Improve’s call for debate in this area.

“The FDF believes that collaboration between the council and industry leaders is required to improve the image of the food and drink industry as an attractive place for unskilled and semi-skilled British people to work in,”​ said an FDF spokesperson.

She said that evidence of lower arrival numbers at low skill levels from the new EU member states coupled with the decision by some migrant workers to return home and the new points based system (designed to enable access for the highly skilled) means that UK immigration policy may need to be reviewed.

“Businesses in all sectors will want to consider the impact of these developments and lobby government if necessary to open the debate around allowing low skilled staff in from Bulgaria and Romania,”​ said the FDF spokesperson.

She said the FDF fully supports the efforts that are being made to encourage the domestic workforce to become active in the employment market at all levels, in particular the welfare to work reform that aims to address labour shortages in the longer term.

She argues that one of the underlying roadblocks to full employment in the UK and to retaining migrant workers will be the availability of demand led vocational training that is competency based.

“The bureaucracy associated with training provision and funding is a real barrier to raising skill levels and development opportunities for individuals joining the sector at entry point and being able to progress,” ​she said.

She added that the FDF is calling on the UK government to support businesses and sector skills councils to break through the red tape that is holding back the changes required.

Related topics Processing & packaging

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