Written evidence submitted by The British Meat Processors Association (LS0069)
The British Meat Processors Association is the leading UK red meat trade body, working on behalf of businesses that supply over 80% of red meat to the country. Our members are responsible for supplying fresh meat and meat products to retailers, restaurants, and food service companies throughout the UK.
We work alongside the Government and other organisations to help develop a meat industry that is competitive, professional and provides a sustainable, long-term, and affordable supply of food to British customers. We also have a strong Associate membership of supporting and associated industries to core red meat processing.
The UK meat sector employs around 97,000 people directly and including supporting/associated industries this totals 255,000 people. Our most recent data shows that across the UK 62% of workers in the industry are EU nationals (10% down since 2018), but with huge regional variation of 39-75%. Whilst rates of EU workers are reducing, there is still a heavy reliance on EU labour and these workers are fundamental to the successful functioning of the meat supply chain.
BMPA would like to take this opportunity to raise some supplementary evidence to that provided to the EFRA inquiry on Labour shortages in the Agriculture sector with regard to the New immigration system and the role of the Home Office.
On the whole members have found the Home Office has adhered to its own timescales which are 15 day response times however when there have been requests for additional information this adds another 15 days from the point they receive the additional information which can be frustrating if the request for additional information transpires to be unjustified.
TLScontact have a contract with UK government to manage the application process in foreign countries. Members find that the process varies by region and is inconsistent between TLS offices availability particularly for the Biometric Residence permit (BRP). To apply to come to the UK for longer than 6 months the BRP includes Name, Date and Place of Birth which has to be proved, fingerprints and a face photo. This requires presenting yourself in person by appointment.
Many of these TLS offices are running on skeleton staff, In North African region for example appointments are only available on one fixed day a week which means candidates have to take holidays or forfeit earnings to attend appointments.
Members have struggled to escalate concerns or queries to UKVI (Home Office) as an employer/ sponsor so have had to enlist immigration advice to access priority channels reserved for appointed immigration advisors (at significant cost) and it’s also easier for applicants to access help, but again, infrastructure is lacking for applicants to be able to do this from certain regions.
Members have experienced inconsistencies between approvals based on case worker – some applications have asked for further information others have passed without. Same information provided in each case.
Example: an application was refused as there wasn’t a TB test but the candidate had not been resident in home country thus TB test wasn’t necessary and caused delay when challenged. The issue here was case worker’s knowledge of new system. Human error, but it caused significant delay to application.
SMS (Sponsorship Management System) system guides and reference documents are not accessible, the help guides for amending a sponsor are large PDFS with hyperlinks and setting up additional contacts on SMS is time consuming and hard to manage. We understand an upgrade is scheduled for Feb 2022 which is long overdue.
Access to TB testing is good across all regions because it is existing infrastructure from previous Tier 2 system.
Members have found that the Visa application process at candidate side is smooth enough, but it is much more difficult at the employer side as the SMS system is so archaic and often crashes.
Priority processing services are promoted but it can take just as long if not longer. Average costs for priority -15 days £400 and 24/48 hours is £800 but we have had nonpriority responses quicker in some cases.
The Priority service is attractive but there are limited slots available and they are not available in every region, various reasons including microchip shortages and biometric office opening hours (again).
Example: 7 people have been approved and biometrics submitted to TLS for passport to be printed. Home Office approved on the 19th but this didn’t reach the TLS to print passports for another 7 days due to limited hours / opening in that region.
Skilled Workers Visa
The Skilled Worker visa route involves significant outlay / large upfront investment. Between £5K - £10K per candidate, costs largely covered by the employer under ‘employer pays’ principle and more generally the fact that skilled applicants do not have sufficient funds to progress applications from further afield (flights etc).
The system can easily be exploited by recruiters and agency, charging large fees for recruitment / immigration services.
Skilled Workers Visas:
Time scales (UK): We started this journey in June 2020 and it took 5 months of delays for our Company sponsorship licence to be Granted by the Home Office. We are then required to apply for Certificates of sponsorship for each job vacancy (which is done in batches) and this has taken up to 8 weeks for them to be granted- then then have to be assigned prior to any application for a Skilled Workers visa from the worker. However, we currently have an application in for Sponsorship Licences and it does appear that the system has changed and so we are hoping for a quicker decision.
Costs: The costs involved in funding the Certificate of Sponsorship and Visa application are huge, over £10,000 per person, this adds significant costs in our business.
This makes it expensive and time consuming, so replacement of butchery and slaughter vacancies can take several months from start to finish.
We are working with two companies to recruit butchers from overseas. The preferred location is the Philippines… due to the butchery skill level and the level of English. We had been looking at South America, but the English standard was not going to be at the required level.We have made @ 38 offers and are aiming to do @ 52 and then see how the process goes and how they “land” here and integrate.We are hoping they will be in the UK in @ Feb ’22 (so not a quick process)
English Language skills at level B1 ( intermediate) are a Mandatory requirement.
BMPA believe the English language standards are inappropriately high and there are serious inconsistencies in accessing tests and access to British Council approved service providers are very limited.
UK approved testing is very hard to access, particularly post pandemic where there are limited/ no appointments available. People are travelling to different countries / continents to access testing. This is overwhelming for candidate and can be expensive (time / travel).
Example: Skilled Pacific Islanders cannot feasibly access an English testing centre.
Northern Marina Islands, Sai Pan would have to travel to the Philippines and it’s a significant cost and limited access.
Temporary Pork Butcher Visas:
At the time of writing (1st December) BMPA were not aware that any butchers had arrived although the scheme was announced in Mid October. We understand up to approximately 50 may arrive shortly and there is little optimism that larger numbers will arrive before Christmas. The new issues around Covid will hinder progress as well.
The decision to appoint four operators that did not have a vast amount of experience in recruiting for the meat sector has hindered progress. Presumably this was necessary for Government procurement processes but nevertheless it has caused significant delays compared to using experienced operators in this particular field of operation.
We have yet to have any arrivals under this scheme. The issues have been:
- A lack of understanding and experience of recruiting skills butchers/ slaughter persons from the service operators
- The requirement to provide vetted/approved accommodation prior to arrival
- The perceived required pay rates and bonus payments- which take it above our current pay level (a starting rate of £30,758).
This means that we still have a significant number of vacancies for skilled butchers and slaughter persons, which is taking time and significant cost to fill.
Company 2 comment:
Company 3 comment:
General Comments from Individual Companies:
We currently have in excess of 200 vacancies over 3 sites (13% of standard manning), with about 70% of those vacancies covered by temporary agency staff. The impact of these shortages has meant that staff are willing to move company for small improvements in pay; this has then forced companies to increase pay rates in a “bidding war” for staff and we have spent an additional £2.5 million in 2021 to maintain competitive rates. Eventually, this cycle can only make British product less competitive and result in increased imports and reduced exports. The shortage of staff has also moved competition from within the sector to competition with all sectors.
We were approved for 120 licences for immigration visas in 2021 but we have been unable to use any of these. The blockers to achieving the required 70 points have been an inability to recruit staff with the necessary level of English language skills or the academic levels required. Skilled Butchers tend to have vocational skills rather than academic skills. These vocational skills are clearly in a shortage in the UK but have not been recognised on the Home Office’s skills shortage list. We are currently exploring opportunities to recruit from the Philippines and China but these processes are taking about 6 months to complete and the associated recruitment costs are very high (up to £6500 per person).
Foreign workers have always had a positive impact on the business, with their high productivity and eagerness to progress, as well as introducing a broader understanding of our cultural differences and similarities and this is now being eroded.
A positive impact of the staff shortage has been a greater focus on skills training, through internal programmes and apprenticeships. This will strengthen our pathways for career progression but is obviously not a short-term fix.
We are obviously struggling more generally for workers in the UK, as we can no longer utilise EU workers for our general operative roles and despite a LOT of work by the team, we haven’t been able to have the numbers we have needed, nor have our agency providers.
Individual Case Study submitted by a large Beef and Sheep Processor
In 2021 following the changes to the immigration system, we successfully applied for and was granted a sponsorship licence allowing us to recruit skilled workers from overseas.
As a sponsor licence holder, we are fully aware of our responsibilities and obligations with the new immigration system relating to the Government Sponsorship process and have been actively recruiting in several countries around the world over the last 6 months to fill critical skill gaps within our business.
Our experience of the Home office Sponsorship Management System (SMS) system so far has been challenging. Our initial request for an increase in allocation of Certificates of Sponsorship (COS), took several weeks to approve. Further requests have since come through in just a few days.
The SMS system is difficult to set up and takes time to add new users to the SMS and whilst we understand the critical need for protection of the system, we have found the user ID to be extremely complicated to input due to confusion over validation.
The SMS platform itself is very complicated to use and whilst we attempted to use the Home Office
help lines for assistance; due to their reduced operating hours (Monday to Thursday 11am-3pm), we were forced to seek external support from experienced users at additional costs to the business. It is also noted that the helpline system is also difficult to navigate and we often have to go through several departments to get to the right operator to assist.
In our experience and based on feedback from other Organisations using the tier 2 system the platform is challenging, end users experience is that there has been a lack of support, accessing support is difficult and organisations have been left to try and understand the system via trial and error.
We acknowledge that there is a link to a user manual which is designed to support businesses using the SMS system but these are split into 12 different sections however, it is not user friendly, it is difficult to navigate. Not all frequently asked questions are answered in the sections.
The set up process up a COS is cumbersome, our experience is that when making any amendments they need to be made via a comments box which is very difficult to locate in the system, we have found that amendments can only be made once we have paid for and assigned the COS.
The recruitment of a worker under this new immigration system is extremely expensive and it is noted that all costs have to be paid up front. For example; if a COS is assigned for 5 years, then the company has to pay the full 5 years sponsorship licence upfront as well as the cost of the NHS. It is clear from the guidance that whilst we can request a refund at any point, the refund is not guaranteed and the £199 fee is not returnable in any circumstance if a candidate withdraws before the COS has been issued.
During the covid pandemic, the red meat supply chain has operated faultlessly in feeding the nation. Having a strong agricultural process, our industry is of paramount importance to the nation. Consequently, having access to a skilled workforce is mandatory to our commercial success.
In October 2021 the UK Government announced a number of schemes in which 5,500 temporary visas were issued to the poultry sector to ease supply chain pressures, whilst a further 800 visas were issued pork abattoir workers after warnings of mass culling.
These schemes were managed by four companies which had been selected by Government.
The Poultry and Pork schemes have managed to get workers into the UK and into industry within 4 –6 weeks, a streamlined process which involved recruitment, interviewing and the granting of bespoke visas had to be undertaken, in which significant cost was absorbed by the labour user.
When we compare this experience against that of the current Sponsor Licence Scheme there is no comparison when we compare ease of access, speed of getting workers into industry, cost and ease of management. The key driver that enabled the success of this project that there was no English language requirement.
Key metric – The Poultry and Pork Scheme places a worker in the workplace in 4 – 6 weeks. The Sponsor Licence Scheme places a worker in the workplace in 4 – 6 months as a minimum.
The support provided to poultry and pork manufacture by the government has not been extended to the red meat industry and we are extremely disappointed given our commitment to continue to feed the nation during the Covid pandemic.
When we compare the pork and poultry seasonal schemes to the SMS system, there is no comparison. Poultry and pork manufacturers were able to access skilled workers quickly due to the fact that the English language requirement was not in place.
What’s more, under the current government guidelines; certified business sponsor licence holders are unable to transfer any of these seasonal workers onto the certificate of sponsorship without them first returning to their country of origin. This is an antiquated policy given not only the unnecessary costs to businesses for workers being issued visa’s under the seasonal workers scheme having to return to their country, the amount of administration required to add them to the new COS sponsorship system and costs involved in repeating an almost identical process for them to return. There is also the environmental impact to be considered. Given the UK’s government’s commitment under COP26 we would urgently ask for a review of this process and for workers currently employed under the seasonal workers scheme to be given an opportunity to remain and transfer onto the skilled workers COS.
In 2021, our sector has not been able to operate at the same level as 2020 due to the key skilled shortages within our business.
Our current vacancies stand at 994 of which 715 are skilled worker gaps.
The Meat Industry has been heavily reliant on workers from overseas for many years with a large percentage of our skilled workers being from the EU. Since Brexit and the closure of the EUSS right to work scheme, the UK has been a less desirable location for EU workers to live and settle and as such we have seen almost 300 of our skilled workers leave the business mainly to return home or to work in other EU countries.
It must be noted that the commercial costs of recruiting from overseas under the new immigration system are extremely expensive.
As a family-owned business who has created thousands of jobs in the UK we find the position abhorrent. We suggest that being able to meet the needs of our customers, using national and international workers creates jobs in the wider economy. Therefore, if some of the tasks being pushed out to other jurisdictions were brought into our remit we would be creating jobs in the UK as a consequence and investing in communities and long-term roles.
In relation to time frames of the new licensing system, the main barrier we have experienced to date is the mandatory English language requirement, set out in the UK VI B1 Certificate.
Historically, skilled butchers and English language qualification are not naturally aligned. Finding workers that match all the criteria is extremely challenging. Therefore, candidates are forced to seek additional support in English training prior to being able to take the UK VI B1 test for English.
Candidates are required to achieve a B1 standard by sitting an IELTS General Test or equivalent authorised test on the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference).
There are four test providers which are approved by the Home Office.
1. Trinity College London
2. ITELTS SELT Consortium
3. Language Cert
4. Pearson Education LTD
The test has four components, Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing. The candidate needs to achieve a min GPA of 4.0 in the IELT General test to achieve the B1 standard under the common CEFR framework.
While we acknowledge that having a basis in English language assists the candidate to integrate more quickly into the job and community, we would suggest the achievement of B1 in all four components is more that what is required.
Key points on our experience of English testing to date:
• The Home Office has approved 4 test providers and organisations have to choose from these providers only.
• Very little guidance has been provided to Organisations in relation to the UKVI test and accessing support in relation to the test or accessing the process has been very difficult.
• Engaging with providers has been difficult:
• The process is challenging, candidates can book directly or the Organisation needs to set up an account with one of the providers.
• The set-up process is challenging, with test providers requesting that service level agreements are set up or business partner models are set up in advance of being able to book test.
• Our experience of setting up accounts with providers is that it is slow and the providers are slow to respond. It is difficult to access the key people in the test providers organisations in order to set up the account.
• Difficulty accessing test centres - providers.
• Some jurisdictions do not have test centres providers.
• Where jurisdictions do have centres, they tend to be in major cities and not easily assessable for all candidates. We have examples of candidates travelling for 2 days to access a test centre.
• Availability of Test dates is limited.
• Test providers determine when they will run tests.
• Test dates are not readily available.- duplicate point above.
• Lack of available dates impacts the Organisations ability to plan and progress candidates.
• Challenges with the test itself.
• Electronic version and paper versions are available, but again this is subject to each individual test centre. Not all centres can offer both options and again candidates are having to travel large distances to be able to sit a test in a media they are comfortable with.
• Some of the test centres are using a variety of tools to manage the various elements of the test – there are inconsistencies in how the tests are being administered and the quality of the audio and test procedures. We have had feedback from candidates specifically around the audio part of the test.
In our experience and through our own observations, we have found inconsistencies in the Government approach in relation to English Language. A candidate on a UK Sponsored visa must have a B1 standard of English, however where a dependent of the candidate travels with the sponsored candidate he/she can travel without English on the provision they achieve B1 standard in five years. He / she can equally access work and education without a visa.
The Home Office has created a situation where 4 providers monopolise the provision of English testing. Organisations cannot influence where test centres are, costs or frequency of testing and the provision from current providers does not meet the demand of Organisations.
The Home Office has pushed the delivery of training and testing outside of the UK jurisdiction, this has created an industry of training schools and English lesson providers in other jurisdictions preparing candidate to pass the test.
These jobs could exist in the UK and create work in the UK, keeping money in the UK economy Training schools that are set up in non-UK jurisdictions in relation to English preparation courses are not regulated to any specific standard or governed by a body such as Ofqual in UK - classes / course are provided in multiple scenarios via one to one class, online, schools and colleges.
By pushing this element of the UK visa compliance out to other jurisdictions, the UK has created a model that increases the risk of candidate exploitation, poor practices and it puts the candidates at risk of being in a bonded labour situation and thus, experiencing hardship.
The cost of preparation courses varies by provider, with costs ranging from £300 to £3000.
It is our view that as a responsible employer who holds a certificate of sponsorship licence, our government should support licence holders recruiting from overseas by allowing English training/testing to take place in the UK where this can be governed/easily validated. Whilst we fully support the English language training to new colleagues, we do not believe this mandatory requirement helps the situation and is necessary before skilled workers are able to travel to the UK.
The fact remains that serious investment outside of the UK is required to enable skilled workers to gain their English qualification to satisfy the sponsorship licence requirements.
Coming to work in the UK is very attractive to some individuals from other Countries who are in hope of a better life. Especially when there is hope of bringing family members over and many have the intention to live and settle here. What we find very inexplicable is the amount of red tape around skilled workers travelling to the UK when their close family members are able to travel with them under that same licence with no such restrictions to English language unless they settle after 5 years.
In order to attain the English language requirements, candidates seeking work in the UK are having to source and undertake English language training and as a business, we have no control over how money is sourced to pay for this.
As a responsible recruiter, we adhere to all out protocols and principals which are clearly set out by our customers and industry bodies and yet the UK government seem to be content in subjecting potential candidates to the risks of abuse and/or exploitation as they seek a better life.
It is our ambition that any new colleagues settle and contribute to society and the UK economy and whilst we recognise the importance of the use of the English language to assist with integration into society; We would strongly advise and support a policy change on English language so that sponsors licence holders are made responsible for undertaking English language training/test within the UK where we would be able to control it. Not only would this enable us to control the governance of training and measure it’s true impact, but it would also remove the threat and risk of labour exploitation and abuse
Company comment on the Pork Butchers visa scheme
We are fairly early stages, however comments so far would be there is unnecessary additional cost for companies involved with fast tracking things to receive them within a reasonable timeframe.
The amount of documentation required to become approved not only in the UK but then other countries is very complex and time consuming.
The seasonal worker scheme was announced far too late given the tight timeframe to secure visas by (end of December). In addition to this, the limited number of agencies which are approved to handle the scheme have no prior experience of sourcing butchers, so this has added to the delays and made the process very difficult, and we are yet to see butchers start with us via this scheme.
For the tier 2 scheme, the amount of documentation needed for the butchers to satisfy the requirements is highly complex and very costly. There are also limited agencies set up to manage this who understand the rules and are GLA licenced, so trying to navigate this ethically and in a timely fashion is very difficult. Again, we are yet to see any butchers arrive via this scheme as the project is ongoing.
Company comment on the Poultry Workers Scheme
We contacted the relevant agencies on 1st October, immediately after Defra released information about the scheme with the intention of getting all workers in by 15/11. This was not possible due to challenges faced by the agency, with delays to 10 of the visas.
Visa application itself is actually quite straight-forward, the challenge is in the bureaucracy and paperwork required- very time consuming. We had to move 3 staff from normal activities to complete the applications which took over 125 hours of staff time
The appointed agency didn’t have staff available with the required skills, we had to locate individuals ourselves and bring in via the agency which added further complexity to the situation
Total cost over £110,000 and counting. This includes additional costs associated with bringing people in on a temporary basis- admin & visa costs, transport & accommodation, care packages. Temporary workers and the use of an agency brings ethical risk to our business as well- increased requirement for auditing of accommodation, transport & payment processes.
• Other comments
o The individuals who are currently with us on the temporary visa are fantastic- without them we would not be able to meet customer orders for festive food, which would have resulted in empty supermarket shelves this Christmas. Ideally we would bring these individuals into the business on a longer term or repeat basis, but at the moment no such scheme or process exists to do this
o The visa length is very short- which is off-putting to a lot of potential candidates
o Seasonal requirement for temporary workers in the fresh food industry isn’t just Christmas, we see big volume uplifts for Easter & summer BBQ as well
o Requirement also extends beyond just the poultry sector- also in beef, lamb & fish/seafood
o Ideally the temporary visa scheme would be expanded to more fresh food sectors, with greater flexibility to appeal to a wider range of potential candidates & to better meet the requirements of the industry
o The labour we require during these seasonal peaks is not available locally. We have very competitive pay rates that we regularly benchmark, and we have highly invested and automated factories (we are planning a further £30 million investment in automation over the next 3 years).