From abattoirs to restaurant kitchens, the U.K. food sector is facing a massive challenge this summer: there just aren’t enough workers.
The food industry, already facing labor shortages because of Brexit and the pandemic, is now being stretched to capacity as the country reopens. Meat processors are cutting production and a “catastrophic” dearth of drivers is disrupting food deliveries to supermarkets. Warehouses and farms are short of labor too, threatening to choke food supply flows, while local pubs and Michelin-starred restaurants are having to restrict service and boost wages for chefs and waiting staff.
“We’re constantly fighting every day to try and put out fires across the supply chains,” said Shane Brennan, who heads the Cold Chain Federation. “We’re already seeing empty shelves in some parts of the food supply chain, in supermarkets and across hospitality. That is going to continue. And we’re going to see intermittent shortages throughout the summer.”
The shortages started with Brexit, which capped inflows of low-paid workers from the European Union. The problem escalated during the pandemic with thousands of people from the 27-nation bloc leaving the U.K. Now as the economy reopens, many of those workers seem in no rush to come back.
That’s adding to pressure on food costs, already boosted by higher commodity prices and logistical disruptions resulting from Brexit and the Suez Canal blockage in March. A stretched labor market will fuel inflation, the Food and Drink Federation has said.
“The whole food industry is really struggling at the moment,” said Nick Allen, chief executive officer of the British Meat Processors Association. “We’re reaching a point of despair, we just seem to be heading towards a brick wall.”
Fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables has been particularly hard hit because of wastage if they don’t move on time, Brennan said. While U.K. harvests are under way, retailers are struggling to source local produce and are reaching out for more European supplies instead, he said.
Growers have for years worried about access to seasonal workers after Brexit discouraged inflows of low-paid EU fruit pickers. The nation’s horticulture farmers are short of 40,000 seasonal workers, even after the U.K. government granted 30,000 non-U.K. visas to boost the labor force, according to the National Farmers’ Union.
Some businesses blame the U.K.’s new points-based immigration system introduced as part of Brexit changes. It prioritizes higher-skilled workers, making it harder for some sectors, such as hospitality and agriculture, to get the staff they need. For EU citizens living in the U.K. before the end of 2020, there’s a separate “EU Settlement Scheme.” The deadline for applications is June 30.
Shortages in farming and processing are also hitting meat production. The BMPA said the industry is looking at closing U.K. production lines and buying from overseas. Companies are already cutting output because of the lack of processing staff and delivery drivers, it said.
There’s a 10% drop in poultry throughput in the last few weeks, according to the British Poultry Council. It’s called on ministers to add the industry — already 60% staffed by EU nationals — to the so-called skilled worker list, which would allow it to recruit more people from outside the U.K.
“The government must recognize food as a special case that is treated as a national security issue,” CEO Richard Griffiths said. “Losing control of how we feed ourselves as a nation would undermine British food producers at a time when we should be looking to use Brexit as an opportunity to take matters of food security and nutrition into our own hands.”
Supermarkets are also feeling the impact of driver shortages. On June 18, Tesco Plc CEO Ken Murphy said the nation’s biggest retailer hasn’t seen empty shelves. His comments came after trade publication The Grocer reported that Tesco told government ministers that almost 50 tons of food a week was going to waste at its suppliers because of a dearth of drivers.
That may also impact those who need food the most. Charity FareShare, which relies on retailers and other suppliers for deliveries of surplus food, estimates that as much as 30% of the food it would normally receive is at risk. Daily deliveries have dropped to about 100 tons from an average of 150 tons to 160 tons, it said.
Chefs and Waiters
Restaurants, pubs, hotels and other establishments shed 330,000 staff through the pandemic. After reopening, they’ve got a 10% vacancy rate and are short of 188,000 people, according to UKHospitality. Chefs, waiters, supervisors, doormen and security guards are all in demand and employers are having to hike wages and prices following a long period of furlough, according to CEO Kate Nicholls.
Some establishments have been forced to cut service, which means no lunch at Michelin-starred restaurants Le Gavroche and Pied a Terre.
“Since opening, restaurants up and down the country have suffered greatly with staffing problems,” Le Gavroche’s celebrity chef patron Michel Roux Jr. told guests on his restaurant’s website. “The alternative at this point would be to essentially overwork our existing staff which we are not prepared to do.”
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