Written evidence submitted by Scottish Land and Estates (LS0010)
Labour Shortages in the Food and Farming Sector
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
08 October 2021
About Scottish Land & Estates
At Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) our work helps to ensure that rural Scotland thrives. We are a membership organisation for landowners, rural businesses, and rural professionals. We promote the wide range of benefits land-based businesses provide: tourist attractions, leisure facilities and landscapes enjoyed by the public, as well as housing, employment, tourism & enterprise and farming opportunities. We represent the interests of our members and wider rural Scotland to the UK and Scottish Governments to help ensure that policy and legislation reflects the unique requirements of rural Scotland and its communities.
1.1 This is a fast moving, ever-changing situation and it is likely that some of our response will only be accurate at the time of submitting. The labour shortages are impacting all stages in the food supply chain, from production and picking, to transport, processing, packaging, and retail.
1.2 For Scottish agriculture specifically, growers in the East of Scotland have suffered significantly from a shortage of labour, meaning produce has had to be left to rot in fields as it cannot be picked in time. For livestock and milk producers, labour shortages have impacted all aspects of the supply chain, but particularly in processing and transport.
1.3 Lack of ability to transport goods to their intended destination in a timely fashion creates wastage in the system, with both economic and environmental costs.
2.1 There are several underlying factors contributing to labour shortages in the supply chain, which have been exasperated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic. Historical issues such as lower rates of pay, challenging working conditions and working patterns meant that employers had to search for employees overseas prepared to do the work. There are also issues with the type of work – this is usually in rural areas therefore many workers stay onsite, seasonal depending on the product, often physically demanding, skilled, and repetitive.
2.2 When the UK was a member of the EU workers were able to travel freely to carry out work in the UK during the peak seasons, then having the option to return home or to other EU countries to top up their annual income at other times. Following the end of the Brexit transition period, many workers returned to the EU in search of employment. Out with the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), it is now only those with previously held settled status who are able (but no longer necessarily willing) to travel to the UK and this is also having an impact on the ornamental horticulture industry as the scope of the SAWS is not extensive enough.
2.3 The Covid pandemic has accelerated the rate at which workers will have returned home, and no doubt had a negative impact on numbers willing to return to the UK. There have also been issues with panic buying due to the pandemic, meaning that supply has been unable to keep pace with demand. As the furlough scheme has just come to an end, we are yet to see the full impact of this on the number of vacancies in the food and farming sector and the number of people willing to take up employment.
2.4 Training and development of a replacement workforce has also been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. This is particularly true with HGV drivers who were unable to complete training and assessments in time to meet the foreseen shortage.
3.1 Whilst immediate emergency visas are welcome, the UK Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy requires a long-term solution rather than short-term visa schemes to give assurances to the food and drink sector and migrant workers. Visas for a few weeks until the end of 2021 will not be attractive to the migrant workforce, or the employers who have the administrative burden of employing them. As discussed earlier in our response, some of the roles in the food and drink supply chain facing shortages require skills and training and therefore investment on the part of the employer. They need a long-term solution to ensure this investment is worthwhile.
3.2 In essence political promises around taking back control of immigration suggested that where there were specific shortages of labour then allowances could be made to ensure the UK economy could continue to grow. This, however, has not happened, and a foreseen shortage has been allowed to manifest itself before any action has been taken.
4.1 As highlighted in response to question two, there are several underlying issues which have been exasperated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic. In addition, there is a dramatic shortage in the number of HGV drivers available, which play an important role in all aspects of the food and drink supply chain. Farmers rely on HGVs to transport feed and other inputs, before HGVs are again used to transport their livestock or produce to processors, before again being used to transport products to stores for sale. The infrastructure to support HGV drivers in the UK continues to decline, with a lack of safe and affordable overnight parking, washing, and eating facilities.
4.2 There are also issues in the upstream supply chain, such as a lack of CO2 for packaging and some abattoirs, all of these issues together have created a perfect storm to create problems in our food supply chains.
4.3 The system of UK supply chains operating a “just in time” model, while very efficient means there is very little resilience, whether it is in energy such as gas or in our supermarkets, we are susceptible to short term supply chain shocks which can lead to shortages of goods and products in a very short timescale.
5.1 While is not certain what the impact this will have, it can only place further pressure on our supply chains.
6.1 It is yet to be seen the full impact of measures to allow immigrant workers to enter the UK, however the proposed short-term solution would appear to be wholly inadequate and unlikely to have a material benefit. A longer term joined up approach is required rather than short-term firefighting measures.
7.1 The UK, and in particular Scotland, has a reputation for producing top quality food and drink, however too often the value of this is not recognised and returned to the primary producer. Aligned to this, a lack of processing and potential to add value means that much of the value is realised out with Scotland.
7.2 We would like to see investment in local supply chains, with public sector organisations taking the lead in procuring locally produced food and drink. Understanding of supply chain structures, as well as producers’ ability to influence and add value to these chains is required. Often this is through co-operation, which requires support and knowledge to ensure its success.
7.3 Post-Brexit free trade agreements must not put the future viability of UK producers at risk, particularly Scotland’s growers and those in the beef, dairy, and sheep sectors. Broad liberalisation of tariffs on a mutually beneficial basis in future trade agreements is to be supported, particularly where there are advantages for UK consumers and export opportunities for UK businesses. However, the high standards of food safety, environmental protection, animal health and welfare in the UK must not be compromised in free trade agreements.
7.4 Maintaining suitably sized tariff rate quotas (TRQs), where appropriate, should be included in future trade agreements. There must be proper parliamentary scrutiny of future trade agreements, and the Trade and Agriculture Commission has an important role in this process, though they are not yet fully established.