Food and drink producers are calling for temporary visas to let European workers fill some of the half a million vacancies in their sector caused by Brexit and the pandemic.
In a cross-industry report, business leaders demanded urgent action to ensure the UK’s food supply chain can weather disruption in the coming months.
The call came as pig producers warned they may need to kill up to 70,000 animals because of backlogs at slaughterhouses caused by worker shortages.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said the meat industry had been pushed into a “full-blown labour crisis” by new immigration rules.
“Their solution is simply to tell businesses to get on with hiring British workers then stand back,” he said. “But it’s not that simple, at least not in the short term.”
The sector backed a temporary 12-month visa scheme that it said could solve short-term issues, echoing calls from the road freight industry to help plug a severe HGV driver shortfall.
Post-Brexit changes and the impacts of Covid have left Britain running low on the drivers, fruit pickers and abattoir workers – many from eastern Europe – that had been crucial to the UK’s food and farming industries.
Analysis by professional service firm Grant Thornton found an average vacancy rate of 13pc across the sector, representing more than half the UK’s total vacancies.
The industry also called for a “permanent, revised and expanded” change to the seasonal worker scheme.
Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers Union warned that wage rises and the end of the furlough scheme would not be enough to solve the problems.
“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs,” he said.
“It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based.”
Earlier in the day, Scottish food groups issued an open letter to the Scottish and UK governments backing calls for temporary visas to tackle “immediate pressures” in the industry.
In the letter signed by groups including the Food and Drink Federation Scotland and the Scottish Seafood Association, business leaders said they were “rapidly approaching a crisis” that would worsen in the run-up to Christmas.
A recent FDF Scotland survey found nine in 10 businesses were struggling to fill job vacancies.
Animal welfare organisations warned that labour shortages could mean worse conditions for animals. Worker shortages has resulted in an excess of about 70,000 pigs on UK farms.
Phil Brooke of Compassion in World Farming said: “We share the concerns of industry that this might cause welfare problems. Clearly if animals are getting stuck on the farms and they end up getting overcrowded this is going to be a problem for the pigs.”
British standards limit how densely stocked animals can be on farms. Farmers say they may have to cull thousands of healthy pigs if labour shortages are not addressed.
Mr Brooke said: “If animals need to be culled, it needs to be done efficiently and humanely. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. We should be making sure we can employ enough people for it not to come to that.”
The Unite union criticised supermarkets for the HGV driver shortage causing problems across the economy.
“The supermarkets fostered and became ever more dependent on a supply chain based on a high turnover of cheap labour,“ said Bev Clarkson, one of its national officers. “That model, which was exploitative, is broken, and the supermarkets must take responsibility for making it fit for purpose.”
Lorry drivers working for Tesco have threatened to strike over work and conditions, risking more severe disruption to food supply chains that have already led to empty shelves in some shops.