11 December 2017 | Online since 2003

24 November 2017

Egg industry sees migrant labour fall


British workers will have to be prepared to take up the food and farming jobs currently carried out by migrant workers if European labour is lost to British businesses following Brexit according to an industry expert.

Mark Williams, the chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), EU migrants currently accounted for up to 60 per cent of people employed in UK egg packing centres and as many as 40 per cent of those employed on farms.

Availability of labour is vital to the industry which is currently seeing a shortage of seasonal workers, despite official figures showing there is a record number of EU workers in the UK.

The industry was trying to promote careers in the egg industry, but he said some British people were not necessarily keen on the hard work involved in the agricultural industry.

"There are too many Brits who are not prepared to bend their backs in the broccoli fields of East Anglia in the middle of winter. That culture is going to have to change as we go forward," Mr Williams said.

The implications of Brexit were the focus of much of the debate at this year's Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) which was held in Wales.

Concerns about freedom of movement across the European Union is believed to have been one of the factors that led British voters to vote by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU in last year's referendum.

'Labour is business critical'

But ever since the surprise leave vote, farming leaders have been warning that losing access to European workers would be disastrous for British agriculture.

Gary Ford, the NFU's chief poultry adviser, told EPIC delegates: "We all know that labour is business critical to the poultry sector. We as an industry have been doing a lot of work with the Migration Advisory Committee, which recently called for evidence," he said.

"We have, as part of our submission, put a number of case studies in there. We can all talk about the importance of access to labour but it really does help illustrate the point when we put specific case studies in."

One case study, he said, was a medium sized poultry meat processor employing 240 staff. He said that 80 per cent of those workers were non-UK labourers. "When you start to talk about numbers and give examples it really does help to drive our argument," said Mr Ford.

'Prepared to work'

Mark Williams said that, following the referendum, the BEIC had conducted a survey which showed that between 55 and 60 per cent of those working in packing centres were from other EU countries.

Between 35 and 40 per cent of those working on farms were from other EU countries. "Continued access to labour is of vital importance to all of you sitting in this room no matter what type of business you are involved in," he said.

Mr Williams said that the foreign workers did "a fantastic job. They are prepared to work. They are prepared to work long hours as well."

However, he said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to attract the labour the industry needed. New recruits were harder to attract and foreign workers already here were going back to their own countries.

"There are people going home now. The UK was seen as a beacon, having a strong economy when the Eurozone was suffering. That's why people were coming here," he explained.

"Some of them are going home because of the Sterling effect. They are not taking as much money home in their pay packets now. But, of course, there are the reports of people not feeling welcome. All of this is having a cumulative effect. Even the labour agencies are saying now that the tap is being slowly turned off."

Unemployment low

Mr Williams said that the BEIC was making an effort to attract people into the industry, but unemployment levels in this country were currently very low - just 4.3 per cent. Agriculture had to compete with other industries for smaller of numbers of people.

"You have all seen UK unemployment figures. We are approaching full employment in the UK. Never before - not for many years, anyway - have we had so few people unemployed. That, in itself, adds further pressures on your businesses.

"I have been ringing around a few people last week knowing I would be here today just asking them, 'Where do you sit now? What's happening in terms of your labour.' They were saying that there is competition from other sectors. If an Ikea distribution centre opens down the road from an egg packing centre, obviously that's competition."

John Reed, chairman of the British Poultry Council, said that 60 per cent of workers in the chicken meat sector were from outside the UK and the industry would need a flexible visa system put in place once the UK withdrew from the EU.

Re-locate

Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director of the Food and Drink Federation said the FDF had asked its members what the effect would be of no longer having access to a supply of EU migrant labour.

He said 17 per cent had said they would have to re-locate overseas and more than a third had said their business would no longer be viable.

The Government's chief vet, Nigel Gibbens, said the Government did understand the industry's concerns about the impact of Brexit on the availability of labour. "We get it. Access to labour is really important," he said.

"For me, I am working with the Royal Veterinary College and the British Veterinary Association to look at the very specific veterinary issues. You share some of those, but it's much broader than that. Other workers can be absolutely crucial.

"Actually, with vets we might have quite an easy sell because they have scarce skills, although they are not recognised as such at the moment. Other workers may be less so but it is probably a case for you to make."

Mark Williams said it was the role of Government to ensure that there was a visa system put in place no matter what happened in the future.

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