Written evidence submitted by Northern Ireland Pork and Bacon Forum (LS0065)

Thank you for your email and the extension to the reply.  Things have been very challenging here and the extension much needed.   I’m afraid that little has improved or changed since the Round Table discussion, but it is important to be able to report this to the EFRA Committee.

The pork sector in Northern Ireland continues to struggle due to the lack of labour.   The processors continue to avail of any opportunity to recruit but with small returns on their efforts.   Even prior to Brexit, they had engaged with local government on employment schemes for 16 – 24 year olds and the Sure Start Scheme, but to date they have not been able to successfully recruit anyone from that.   The Tier 2 Scheme has yielded some return with 12 workers recently arrived here from the Philippines.  However, the process took 11 months and the complexity of red tape involved was overwhelming.  12 workers will be gratefully received, but it makes small impact on the overall need for 200 – 250 across our sector.  

As mentioned at the Round Table discussion, since the Tier 2 scheme does appear to work within current government immigration policy, why must the administrative burden and the resulting timeline be so cumbersome – and unnecessarily so?  Surely this could be alleviated in some way?  The process is expensive with companies paying for rented accommodation for months to ensure that it is available for when the workers will eventually arrive.   In addition, there are costs of ca £1200 per worker to get them onto the process in the first place.

While the workers brought in on the Tier 2 Scheme will at least be able to remain here for 3 years, those who may come under UK Government’s 800 Visas for skilled butchers can only remain for 3 months.   That is not long enough to make a meaningful impact on the situation here – although any workers will be taken on gratefully.   But despite the efforts of the processing companies to engage with the government appointed agencies for the allocation of these workers, not one worker has yet been secured and nor is likely to be before Christmas.   It has been a frustrating and unhelpful process, rendered all the more so with media reports of the Defra Minister stating that UK Government has given the pork sector all it has asked for, but it has failed to take up any of it. 

The Aid to Private Storage has not be offered in NI as yet, but there are concerns with it as it means that the pork will eventually come out of storage and depress the market further at that time.  That said, the offer is unattractive to processors as the assistance extends only to the cost of storage.  The greater burden of costs in this process comes with the preparation of the pork and the blast chilling.   It would effectively amount to additional costs for the processor in an already severely challenged situation with no impact on the difficulties they face trying to fulfil added value orders to their retail customers.

As far as costs go, both farmers and processors have been severely impacted over the past 6 months in particular.   Feed costs are at an all-time high and farmers are being faced with pigs backing up on farms becoming overweight.  The back up of stock arises, as pointed out previously at the Round Table, due to the fact that the processors cannot access the labour they require.   In an attempt to alleviate the welfare problem of pigs backed-up on farms, processors have moved staff out of their butchery and packing areas into the slaughter halls to try to increase the kill numbers, including Saturday kills.  This comes at a cost to both farmer and processor: to the farmer as the price is dropped and there are penalties anyway for overweight pigs (£30 - £40 per pig): and to the processor as due to moving what skilled butchers they do have to the slaughter hall further destroys the value added business and leaving them unable to fulfil retail customer orders.    This results in empty supermarket shelves.

Those heavier pigs create difficulties on the production lines with increased condemnations due to heads trailing the floor and breakages on the line due to the overweight carcases – all of which perpetuates an already impossible situation.  The heavier carcases are too large for the packaging and in all cases are being packed as bone-in primals and sold at a loss on the European market.  Ironically, this serves to drive the EU price down further in an market which is already oversupplied with pork and more than likely, UK supermarkets source pork from EU since our processors are unable to supply them – because they cannot get the labour!  It makes no sense.

We are struggling towards Christmas with some farmers already saying they will be forced to exit the industry.  Morale is extremely low – which is soul destroying to witness for an industry which, at this time last year, was speaking about its potential for sustainable growth – particularly given that the UK is only 50% self sufficient in pork production.   An industry which is worth an estimated £410m in NI alone.  

We have, and still continue, to maintain strict protocols in businesses with respect to Covid 19.  However, we are mindful of the fact that as it is rising in the community, this potentially further exacerbates the problems we have with availability of labour. 

We need access to global labour and not just for seasonal periods or as a temporary sticking plaster.  Ours is an industry which requires year-round labour.   We are already investing in further automation, but that is a longer term solution and will not remove the need for skilled butchers in particular.  Wages have been increased steadily – at 4% above the rate of inflation  - but to no avail in terms of securing local workers.   Our ask remains the same:  we  need government to make access to global labour possible and to look at financial support for pig farmers while this situation persists.  Otherwise it will mean the death knell for an industry that has so much potential  – or is that what UK Government really wants?

December 2021