EU exit will trigger Labour shortages across the UK meat industry
The following article was written by Nick Allen, Chief Executive Officer at the British Meat Processors Associationand appeared in the July edition of Meat Management magazine. It is reproduced here with their permission
The recent announcement of a new Government pilot scheme to allow 2500 non-EU seasonal workers into the country to work on fruit and vegetable farms for six months is the equivalent of placing a band-aid on a broken leg. It should also serve as a warning to the meat industry, which also relies heavily on migrant workers to keep plants running.
To put the new pilot scheme into context, the soft fruit industry aloneemploys around 29,000 seasonal workers, 95% of whom currently come from the EU. When the labour requirements of the other fruit, vegetable and salad growers are included, it’s easy to see that the pilot scheme will not come close to replacing the tens-of-thousands of EU workers who are now choosing to leave the UK and take their skills and labour elsewhere.
The same problem now exists in the meat industry. According to a recent survey undertaken by the British Meat Processors Association, companies on average, are experiencing at least a10% shortfall on their required staffing levels.
The problem is that British workers are not keen to take jobs in abattoirs and meat processing plants. Even after raising wage levels, in some cases by up to 20%, companies still can’t fill vacancies. With this problem being encountered across the sector, the worry is that supply will tighten, prices will rise, and consumers will end up suffering as a result.
Part of the Government’s solution is to encourage companies to employ innovative technology solutions to reduce dependence on a large workforce.
With the rise in consumer preference for ready–to-eat and ready-to-cook meat products, the market for processed meat has been increasing worldwide, as has the demand for processing equipment that increases product consistency, shelf-life and quality. According to a recent Allied Market Research report, the meat processing equipment market is predicted to grow at an annual rate of 7.1% from 2017 to 2023.
Even after raising wage levels, in some cases by up to 20%, companies still can’t fill vacancies.
There are undoubtedly opportunities to invest in technology, but automation won’t be appropriate in all scenarios. Some jobs simply require the skill and dexterity of an experienced worker; and this is particularly true in the meat industry.
Even with innovations such as three-dimensional X-Ray sensing to determine the location and attitude of bone structure, robots still fall short of what the human eye and hand can do.
The other challenge that meat companies both large and small face is the degree of operational disruption and cost involved in introducing these new technologies. Companies must ensure that they will get a sufficiently large improvement in productivity and sales to offset the capital investment and re-structuring required to automate part of their production.
Given the uncertainty being caused by Brexit, many companies are reluctant to make any major investment decisions despite Government’s entreaties to do so.
Even with a clearer picture of what the future holds, meat processors will still need access to large numbers of migrant workers for a considerable time to come.
BMPA is fighting hard to ensure that the Government recognises the problem and implements practical measures to maintain a skilled meat industry workforce.