Posted: 06/07/2021

PM urged to act on ‘crippling’ food & drink staffing crisis

staffing crisis

Key bodies from across the food supply chain have written to Boris Johnson warning that a staffing crisis is “crippling” vital areas of the sector.

A letter signed by 40 trade associations urged the prime minister to act on the staffing crisis by relaxing tough post-Brexit immigration rules for workers looking to return to the UK as COVID-19 restrictions are finally eased this summer.

A detailed study by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence earlier this year estimated that 1.3 million people left the country between summer 2019 and summer 2020 – a period that included the start of coronavirus restrictions and the UK’s exit from the EU.

The letter, signed by the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA), the Craft Bakers Association and the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers among others, said those who remained “seem unwilling” to fill vacancies in the sector.

“We ask that all those who have worked in the UK over the last three years are given the freedom to return to work here with less restrictive immigration regulations on a short-term basis,” it added.

British Sandwich and Food to Go Association director Jim Winship, who organised the letter, told FFD: “It’s a huge issue across the industry. Many of our members can’t get staff; restaurants with full order books have had to close. 

“If this isn’t resolved, we will see businesses fail. If you can’t get staff, you can’t produce food and you get inflation and other issues.”

BIRA chief executive Andrew Goodacre said the government “needs to recognise the problem and put in place some temporary measures”. 

He added that as well as relaxing immigration rules for returning workers who left due to the pandemic, ministers should change the apprenticeship programme “so more people can be employed in the food retail and hospitality sectors”.

Emma Macdonald, director of The Bay Tree, Devon, said that the business was seeing issues with deliveries due to staffing shortages in the haulage industry. “Our hauliers cannot find the drivers to deliver stock, so we are not getting the service we should be – in some cases deliveries are taking twice as long to be delivered to customers and us. This is due to drivers being laid off last year, I assume, and now they have either got another job or have possibly gone back to Europe,” she said.

Kirsty Barden, business development manager at food sector trainee scheme Management Development Services, said companies throughout the food supply chain were struggling to fill both temporary and permanent roles.

Many EU-born workers had returned home during the lockdowns and realised they could have a better standard of life outside the UK, she added.

“Some have found similar work back home on the same pay as they had here. Factories and food processing plants in Eastern Europe are often now the same standard, with similar working conditions and similar pay.”

David Rippington, manager of Thyme and Tides in Stockbridge, Hampshire, said that the deli was struggling to recruit staff across the board. “The students have not come and a lot of people have returned to the EU because of the pandemic and Brexit. Also people who have been let go by other companies in the sector have changed job and become delivery drivers or taken other options,” he said.

“The lockdown has been extended [beyond 21 June] and people are uneasy about starting a new job. They don’t know if they would get furlough rights or sick pay. The longevity of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is also an issue as people are still on furlough rather than in the jobs market.”

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