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NPA calls for action on labour shortages in meeting with Government departments

14th Jul 2022 / By Alistair Driver

An NPA delegation, including chairman Rob Mutimer, Zoe Davies and Lizzie Wilson, has met Ministers and officials from various Government departments to discuss the ongoing problems caused by labour shortages in the pork supply chain.

pig workersThe meeting, which took place in London with some people joining online, was chaired by Farming Minister Victoria Prentis and featured officials from Defra, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education.

It also included prominent figures from the pork processing sector, as the supply chain made a strong case for action to ease shortages that threaten to constrain pork production in the years ahead.

Discussion covered the issues faced in recruiting sufficient labour in both the processing and farm sectors, the reasons behind these problems and how Government policy could support the industry going forward.

However, Rob described the meeting, ultimately, as ‘frustrating’. “We were grateful to Victoria Prentis for chairing the meeting and bringing people from various parts of Government, including the Home Office, which has been difficult to engage with on this issue,” she said

“We covered a lot of ground and we managed to get our arguments across. However, I’m afraid we didn’t secure the commitments on policies that would allow the pork supply chain to secure the labour it desperately needs in the long-term. We are hopeful however that it is a solid starting point, on which to try to move forward.”

Discussion points

  • A DWP official outlined the opportunities provided by the Kickstart and Way to Work schemes, including a partnership with ‘People Plus’ matching job seekers with job opportunities with the help of a free app. He urged businesses to take a more local approach so people get to know local job centre staff.
  • A DFE official outlined how the Department was currently reforming the skills system, and said he hoped the pig sector would be able to take advantage of relevant apprenticeships.
  • A figure from a leading pork processor explained how the business was working with job centres and local communities to hire staff but was still reliant on international labour, which was often difficult to recruit. He highlighted, for example, how the English language requirement was still a barrier to recruitment.
  • Industry figures called for improvements in numerous other areas, including more flexibility on apprenticeships, more of a work-based training focus and more funding to tech and engineering roles, as the quality of courses has been reduced.
  • Another industry representative stressed that the farm, allied and veterinary sectors were all very short-staffed and asked what could be done to encourage young people to take up careers in these sectors.
  • The NPA’s Rob Mutimer added individual farmers simply cannot access the labour to run the farms under the various Government schemes, as they are ‘totally impractical for small businesses’. Farmers have tried to recruit locally but the labour pool is too small. He said farmers desperately needed more help from Government.
  • Zoe Davies said a fundamental review of the skills needed was required, alongside a practical look at the supply chain and sources of labour. This is key to our ability to produce food in the UK in future.
  • On migrant labour, another processor representative highlighted the difficulties in utilising the skilled worker route for bringing workers in from outside the EU, including the time taken, initially 18 months, to get workers through the door and the cost attached to each worker. 
  • A Home Office official said they were pleased that more skilled worker visas were coming through system, including for butchers.
  • A processor representative warned that labour will be a secondary issue due to the ‘lack of border controls on everything but labour’, if it allows ASF to reach the UK pig herd.
  • Industry representatives also questioned when the Government would review the shortage occupation list, including calls to add butchers to the list, making it easier to recruit them.
  • The NPA’s Lizzie Wilson asked if the Migration Advisory Committee concludes in their forthcoming report that butchers should be on the list, whether the Home Office would reject the recommendation for a second time.
  • Mrs Prentis said the points would be passed onto the Home Office and acknowledged that there are still ‘significant challenges’ in the labour market.

Key action points for Defra and others from the meeting 

  • Organise further meetings with DWP and DfE (and industry) to explore just what is available, what works, what doesn’t and other areas of support
  • Explore what the £3000 ‘immigration skills surcharge’ is actually for (apparently goes straight to the Treasury), alongside other costs associated with the skilled worker visa application charge,
  • Explore exemptions around English language requirement, eg is it sufficient if education primarily in English
  • Explore more flexibility around apprenticeships
  • Collate and submit evidence for seasonal labour requirement for Christmas uplift
  • As a group will write to Home Office wwith evidence to support why butchers should be added to the SOL, and in response to review/consultation due out shortly
  • There was discussion around a fundamental review of labour requirements for the entire sector. 
  • NPA to continue dialogue with the Home Office.