EU Workers are a Key Ingredient in the British Meat Industry
There is much to exercise the mind of proprietors in the meat sector at the moment, the recent announcement about the government consultation on CCTV, the declining meat consumption figures, challenges by various NGO’s on animal welfare, are just a few, but overshadowing all these is of course, Brexit, and what it might or might not mean for the meat sector.
The future regimes around labour supply, food standards, trade and agricultural and environmental policy are business critical. If the Government fails to get policies right in these areas, the future of the British meat processing industry, worth billions a year to the British economy, will be under threat.
Getting these issues right is not only essential to the future of our industry, but to consumers and the wider economy. A failure to ensure that British meat processers are able to recruit the necessary labour and operate profitably will almost certainly lead to food price inflation.
As the UK withdraws from the European Union, it is essential that we have a smooth transition to our new trading relationships and approach to food standards.
The UK is well into its two years of negotiating its exit from the EU and, whilst we have recently had a plethora of position papers from the UK government on various issues, it must be recognised that they merely outline the governments negotiating stance; they do not describe what will actually happen. This was articulated recently by the European Parliament’s lead coordinator on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, who described one position paper as a “fantasy”.
As the UK withdraws from the European Union, it is essential that we have a smooth transition to our new trading relationships and approach to food standards. This will help to minimise disruption to business and ultimately ensure we can continue to deliver the high quality and affordable food consumers expect.
Our industry has been heavily reliant on EU labour for about 15 years, with not just factory worker positions being filled by EU migrants but also a number of supervisory and junior management roles. The ability to attract EU27 staff has supported the growth of the sector and has allowed the industry to be more export focused. Migrant workers have not replaced UK workers, but added to them.
The total workforce is around 75,000 and of that workforce around 63% are from the EU27 countries (mainly, but not exclusively, central and eastern Europe). However, this figure masks the many plants that have as many as 70 or even 80% of the workforce coming from the EU.
The meat processing sector is not particularly seasonal, so these staff are in the workforce all year round, in directly employed or agency roles. As a result, a return to a Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme alone would not meet industry requirements.
If free movement is to end, then a reinstatement of Tier 3 of the 5 tier points-based system for migration would resolve possible labour issues.
The need to find outlets for cuts where there is no domestic market is essential to the profitability of our industry. Currently between 75% to over 90% of trade for our beef, pig and sheep meats members is with EU countries. We need to see the freest possible trade with the for EU our industry to remain viable, and in turn to prevent widespread food price inflation in the British economy.