Written Evidence submitted by The New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and the sector-led New Anglia Agri-food Industry Council and Agri-food Sector Skills Group (LS0036)
Our joint response to the questions raised in the consultation is as follows -
In Norfolk and Suffolk, 102,360 people work across the agri-food sector, representing 14.7% of the Norfolk and Suffolk workforce against a national average of 12.6%. We have seen an increase in vacancies during 2021 of 123% to levels significantly higher than pre-pandemic, with vacancies in August of 5,566 advertised roles. Trends in our sector and workforce are monitored through our sector-led Agri-Food Industry Council, Agri-food Skills Group and through the New Anglia Growth Hub.
We are seeing labour shortages in Norfolk and Suffolk in all areas of the food chain – primary agriculture especially seasonal picking roles; food processing, especially meat and poultry processing; and across the logistics sector. Norfolk and Suffolk produce 16.6% of the UK’s fruit and vegetables, and 17.6% of its poultry, in addition to other strengths right across the food chain, so the impact we are seeing in this region has a significant effect nationally. These shortages undoubtedly reflect a significant long-term shift in the industry which will take place over several years. The industry needs ongoing support during that period of transition.
Particular areas of concern are –
The shortage of butchers affecting the pig industry
22.7% of the UK’s domestic pig industry is in Norfolk and Suffolk, a vital local industry and key to our food chain nationally. Serious concerns have been raised locally about the lack of butchers and the backlog of pigs on farm, with limited options for larger pigs, and on-farm slaughter and carcass disposal a real possibility.
Norfolk farmer Rob Mutimer is also chairman of the National Pig Association (NPA), which has been calling for temporary visas for butchers - similar to those already offered to poultry workers and HGV drivers - to fill critical supply chain vacancies previously filled by Eastern European workers before Brexit. Meanwhile, pig farmers are leaving the industry and Mr Mutimer said some are "getting close" to considering emergency culls of their animals unless urgent government action is taken.
An award-winning East Anglian pig farmer has been forced to cull his entire herd after 50 years in the industry, amid mounting financial losses and an acute worker shortage. Peter Mortimer, of Fir Tree Farm in Metfield, near Harleston, started keeping pigs in 1964. But now he has decided to send his 140-sow herd to slaughter as a result of the unfolding industry crisis which has left him losing £10-£15 for every animal he produces. He said farmers are already "losing money hand over fist" after months of low prices and high feed costs are now dealing with a huge backlog of animals due to a post-Brexit shortage of workers in abattoirs and meat processing factories.
A lack of food processing workers for the poultry industry
Mark Gorton, Director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry has warned of the inevitable shortage of turkeys for Christmas, when they need to double their workforce from 300 to 600 to cope with demand. Farmers are concerned that supermarkets will replace UK birds with imported products, with potentially devastating long-term impact on the industry. Norfolk and Suffolk produce 17.6% of the UK’s poultry, with major processors like 2Sisters also located in the area, which also owns the UK’s largest turkey producer Bernard Matthews.
The need for more vets working with large animals and in processing compliance affecting our livestock industries - our business intelligence shows that some vets are not taking on new clients because of staff shortages, with serious implications across our livestock industries and in abattoirs.
The constraints of the current SWP scheme for seasonal workers available to our fruit and vegetable growers.
Norfolk and Suffolk are home to some of the UK’s leading fruit, vegetable and salad growers, for example –
Both these companies have pro-active HR departments which have worked closely with FE colleges and local skills and employment partners, in addition to engaging with national recruitment campaigns in 2020. Despite these efforts, recruitment of UK seasonal workers has had limited success.
The limitations of the current SWP scheme, namely a reliance on four Labour Providers, have resulted in producers being obliged to accept a lower standard of recruitment practices than would have been delivered as a direct recruiter. Additionally, despite industry-leading accommodation and welfare activities, the labour turnover of those with settled status is around 45%, and this shortfall has to be made up with additional SWP visas.
In our region this number could be more than a thousand workers next year. Without immediate action and certainty of the scheme the most talented people will sign up to jobs elsewhere in Europe.
These issues and concerns are mirrored in smaller companies, who often have less HR capacity or sufficient economies of scale to be able to offer solutions around transport or housing.
The impact of the pressures in the haulage industry on the food supply chain
The start of the sugar beet campaign has put even more pressure on haulage firms and there is concern that some farmers could struggle to get their crops to the factory. The ongoing shortage of lorry drivers may create a major problem for some firms who are already finding it hard to get enough drivers.
British Sugar and the NFU have now issued warnings to growers that they might have to use their own tractors and trailers to move their crops but there is a promise of “flexibility”. The campaign comes at a time when hauliers are still moving grain for farmers so there is concern that beet may pile up on the fields waiting to be moved.
Pearn Wyatt and Son is a company which provides agricultural haulage services across Norfolk including beet crops. They have said that the driver shortage issue has been going on since March and is more of an issue at this time of year when they are facing peak demand for their services. They would normally be operating with eight or nine sub-contractors but at the moment have only four available, which is significantly reducing their capacity to deliver.
These labour shortages across our sector should be set in context alongside a number of other factors putting strain on agri-food businesses as set out in our response to question 4: additional costs around inputs and machinery; Fuel and power costs; Trade and supply chain uncertainty, for example. Businesses across our agri-food sector are therefore dealing with multiple pressures alongside labour shortages.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, we have long-term issues in attracting workers into the food sector, especially into seasonal jobs on farm, and into food processing roles.
Despite promotion efforts from the industry, working closely with those in education including FE and specialist providers, the LEP and other partners, many of these roles are not attractive to local people.
We also have ongoing low unemployment in this region, with 4.6% unemployment in Norfolk and Suffolk currently against 5.9% nationally, and therefore not a significant local pool of available staff. Seasonal roles also present difficulties for families trying to secure a year-round steady income.
G’s Fresh saw 50% of Romanian and Bulgarian seasonal harvest workers with settled status return in 2021. Many others chose to work in other EU countries, often due to uncertainty around Covid travel restrictions and attractive job offers from countries like Germany. The remainder have been made up of people from Ukraine on a SWP visa.
Place UK owner Tim Place said that prior to Brexit, the company's 550-strong seasonal workforce was solely recruited from Romania and Bulgaria. But only 60% of those people returned this year; the rest had to be recruited by agencies from countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Macedonia - and Barbados. They were still short of around 60 people every week, which put a considerable strain on their workforce, and only avoided wasting fruit this year due to the colder weather which drew out the harvest over a longer period. Attempts to recruit seasonal workers locally were largely unsuccessful with a limited pool of people seeking employment, and issues around the seasonal nature of many roles a constraint, and accommodation and transport costs an additional issue.
Norfolk fruit grower Sharrington Strawberries said that about 20% of their strawberries remain unharvested this year after losing a third of their seasonal workforce after EU Exit. They previously relied on a team from Romania and Bulgaria. But they have not returned this year, so they have signed up with an agency recruiting mainly from Ukraine. Despite paying up to 50% more in wages, they were still only able to recruit about two thirds of the 60 workers they needed to harvest this crop. Norfolk and Suffolk have been at the forefront of a hugely successful sector drive to produce year-round UK strawberries in the last few years; this progress could be undone if the sector cannot secure timely access to labour for harvest.
Across the industry there have been concerted efforts to recruit and train UK workers.
Across City College Norwich, Suffolk Rural and independent provider Poultec, there are 1,500 land-based learners in the 2020/21 academic year with good interest in these courses. However, most of these learners will go into full-time roles in the industry. The additional seasonal needs on farm are harder to cover from the Norfolk and Suffolk workforce.
G’s Fresh report that only 7 out of 500 from the Feed the Nation 2020 campaign have returned this year, although some colleagues were offered and accepted permanent roles. NFU report that the Pick for Britain campaign was helpful last year, but more low-key national promotion this year has been less successful. These are highly skilled roles, and it takes time to train staff to the high skill level required.
There are also significant labour shortages in the food processing industry, where SWP has not been applicable, and while we are seeing some increase in interest in agricultural careers, we know that the food processing sector is finding it hard to attract workers to their roles – shift patterns, wage levels and ongoing self-isolation issues also contribute. It will take several years to grow a UK workforce for these key industries and for the industry to adapt its job offers to the UK jobs market, and in the meantime, ongoing support with labour shortages is needed.
With birth rates still well below levels seen in the 1990s, we do not believe the shortage of UK-based workers will be alleviated immediately. Access to workers from abroad is needed at least on a short-term basis during this period of adjustment.
In Norfolk and Suffolk the LEP and the New Anglia Agri-food Skills Group are working closely with employers, DWP and the FE sector to promote roles in the sector.
Exciting regional initiatives in controlled environment farming are also underway which offer potentially more attractive higher paid and year-round jobs –
Robotics and automation will also over time help to reduce labour shortages. The East of England is leading the way nationally in agri-tech innovation in robotics. Programmes to stimulate innovation include -
While all of these initiatives will undoubtedly develop technologies and solutions which reduce dependence on labour for many food processes, this will take time to deliver measurable impact on workforce needs in the sector.
Across agriculture and food processing, seasonal roles, long hours and rural locations all contribute to making roles unattractive. Employers are working hard to offer more attractive packages, with the average salary of sector roles in the food sector £20,399 in August 2021, which compares favourably with other rural LEP areas like Heart of the South West at £17,708, and is above the national average of £18,924. However, they report poor take-up of roles even if pay is increased. Adjustments to shift patterns and other terms and conditions will also take time and are vital in a candidate-led market, with other sectors competing for a limited pool of people looking for work. The food sector is also highly competitive with often small margins, so the ability of employers to offer attractive wages may be limited.
Issues which are affecting the Norfolk and Suffolk food supply chain include –
NFU East Anglia sets these changes and challenges in the context of current changes in agricultural policy, which they say represents the biggest transformation in the sector for generations. Many smaller Norfolk and Suffolk farms need to achieve major adaptations in their business models to accommodate the reduction in BPS payments alone, but are further challenged by many of the issues listed above. At the same time, there is a lack of detail and certainty on the environment schemes set to replace direct payments. There is real concern for the future success of farming if the government presses ahead with its current timetable to transition to new agricultural policy schemes that simply are not ready.
Frictions in our long and complex national and international supply chains. It is too early to say what the full impact of these changes will be, but it clearly has the potential to amplify and increase the issues already being experienced, particularly with delays already being experienced at our major ports including Felixstowe.
The Government introduced several major national schemes to support people into the workplace in 2020-21 including Kickstart and Restart. While these of course are being helpful, the offer in each one has been very specific and often restrictive, and take-up has in some cases been low.
G’s Fresh, a major grower of vegetable crops, report that only 4 out of their 30 Kickstart roles have been filled, with 2 of those going on to permanent roles. More established local employability programmes have a more responsive and locally networked offer, with the ability also to support people facing barriers to employment.
Additionally, the welcome move to offer overseas opportunities to 5,000 temporary poultry workers and 5,000 HGV drivers, as well as a new announcement offering 800 opportunities for butchers, can help to fill critical vacancies in the food chain in the run up to Christmas. It is still too early to see how successful these moves have been. The poultry sector had asked for longer lead-in times than last year as their seasonal labour needs for Christmas start at the end of the summer.
It is vital for the Government to take further steps to support the food supply chain. As outlined in our other responses, a number of initiatives are underway to address labour shortages but these will take time to achieve results. In the meantime, lack of suitable staff is forcing the industry to cut production, often drastically. We are already seeing reports of UK poultry supply, for example, being replaced with imports in UK supermarkets, with potentially grave consequences for our industry.
Despite the announcements for temporary poultry workers and HGV drivers, there were no measures announced for the pig sector. This is despite repeated requests for short-term visas to address a chronic shortage of workers in pork processing plants. As set out above, we are already seeing the impact of this on pig farms where there are backlogs and animal welfare concerns.
In the short term, our food businesses need Government support to enable the food chain to adjust including –
In the longer term, we are passionate about our work in controlled environment farming, automation and robotics. A significant increase in funding and support to encourage and stimulate innovation and take-up in automation and robotics will help the industry to accelerate reduced reliance on workers for manual tasks.
This business intelligence has been sourced from local businesses, New Anglia LEP's Agri-Food Industry Council and its skills sub-group, New Anglia LEP's weekly business intelligence submissions to central government, and local news sources such as the Eastern Daily Press and East Anglian Daily Times. Data on the agri-food sector was compiled for the Norfolk and Suffolk Local Industrial Strategy, and employment data is sourced from Economic Modelling Specialists International (EMSI), the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics.