Written evidence submitted by Anonymous A2 (LS0070)
Case study prepared for EFRA Committee – December 2021
Experience of the new immigration system
Currently a key ingredient of our economic success, the UK food and drink sector, is under immense pressure and the labour issues we face are not reducing. This pressure is being felt acutely within my own business, with [over 10,000] workers across our company, of whom [around 90%] are within the UK. We face natural staff turnover, which despite being industry leading, is proving harder and harder to replace. We forecast the shortfall to reach [around 1,000] people by the middle of 2022, even with the current actions being taken. Therefore I must urge you to assess current measures to address the labour issues in our industry and consider innovative new actions that should be implemented.
We are doing everything we possibly can and are expending an incredible amount of energy ourselves to retain, recruit, train, develop, engage and motivate our team members.
I understand the Committee is particularly interested in understanding the industry’s experience of the new immigration system, and the recent temporary, short-term visas for workers from certain sectors announced this September and October.
The Poultry Visa Scheme:
- What was referred to as a ‘poultry’ visa scheme, was really a ‘turkey’ scheme for the Christmas period.
- It seems too little, too late for the turkey sector, and was at the wrong time of year for the rest of the poultry (chicken) industry, which [the contributor] is in.
- In terms of timing, the chicken part of the poultry industry has a particular labour requirement aligned to consumer demand for products which runs from January to September each year to cover the post-Christmas, Spring period through to the end of the barbecue season. Therefore the timing of the seasonal workers scheme for those of us in the chicken part of the poultry industry was inappropriate, as in fact it is our quietest period of the year.
- The finish date for the Poultry Visa Scheme is the end of December 2021 which means in reality the workers will be leaving by 22nd December. Our first workers only arrived on 7th November, which means we will only have had the workers for a maximum of 6 weeks and some (by the time they arrived) only 4 weeks.
- Whilst it was our quietest time of the year, the Scheme was invaluable and urgently needed for the sector, and therefore we supported it, because it enabled us to fill some of our labour shortfall gaps of [around 750 vacancies] for 4 – 6 weeks. This is despite a cost to us of approximately [just under half a million pounds].
- The scheme was good in that it has no requirements in terms of pay rates or remuneration, language skills (in contrast to the Skilled Worker Scheme) and therefore we were able to attract workers to fill our gaps to help us to continue to feed the nation, but again this was in reality at the wrong time of year for us in the chicken industry. Therefore our ask as a chicken processor, is this Scheme should have run from January to September.
- At a practical level, we requested [around 250] worker visas and as at 25th November we had [around 25] people caught up in the system because their visas were not approved. We have therefore only received [around 250] workers, despite the fact we have paid for [around 275] visas. Therefore we have lost [nearly £10,000] on unused visas.
- The experience with the wasted visas are frustrating because there is such a short window of time to get the benefits from the scheme.
- We have estimated the additional costs of the visa scheme at [just under half a million pounds] for just 4-6 weeks of additional workers. These costs exclude their wages, but include visas, flights, airport transfer, accommodation and transport from accommodation to/from site each day, amongst other costs. If we had not paid for these then there would have been no financial benefit for these workers joining us for such a short period of time, and the visas would have been unused.
- Home Office and agencies – speed of operation
- Despite the above, the Home Office have processed and approved quite a few visas in a short period of time.
- We have only used one agency and despite the challenges and workload they have been given at very short notice, they have performed remarkably well.
- Future changes to help the industry
- The industry needs a longer lead-in period to prepare for such a scheme.
- A longer duration is necessary so it is financially and practically worthwhile to attract workers to help us to continue to feed the nation.
- The scheme should be open at least January to September, if not year round.
- There was a lot of work for little return, which can be addressed in future with a longer running scheme, at the right time of year, to have a longer payback period.
The Skilled Worker System:
- We have only used this scheme for one worker so far.
- The process is characterised as complex, difficult to understand and confusing as a first time user or irregular user.
- However in our example of recruiting one employee from Australia, and to maintain confidence of compliance and ensure and understand our way through the application process on the website, we had to engage an external legal expert at a cost of [around £1,500] for their advice on a single worker. The steep learning curve and admin process to process one single certificate of sponsorship is considerable.
- However, the visa has just been approved and despite the above, in a fairly reasonable time process.
- The Skilled Worker job codes that are within scope of the System are historical and out of date for our sector. It would appear to us they were written and defined about 20 years ago or more for an industry which has evolved immeasurably during the intervening years. Therefore the equivalent job roles today are not directly comparable to those defined in the System. This is particularly noticeable at the operations level within a modern factory.
- For example the job role 5433 ‘Fishmongers and Poultry Dressers’ ‘poultry processor’ includes a description of a task which “removes feathers and internal organs”. In a modern factory this task is heavily automated and performed by a machine, however the people who process the rest of the chicken that reaches our stores and are also skilled jobs would appear to be excluded.
- Conversely, the System does not permit someone who is in the role 8111 ‘process worker’ or ‘meat processor’, which we would view as equivalent to 5433 and we would consider as skilled roles, and within the spirit of the System.
- We have requested a meeting with ONS to review the job definitions as a matter of urgency
- Ultimately, it is actually very confusing under ‘some’ job codes, as to what skilled workers a visa could be applied for.
Context – We are doing all we can but support on Visas is needed.
Our team are Food Heroes who have been working harder than ever to ensure we continue to provide society with safe, nutritious food during these unprecedented times. We are unwavering in our determination to support them as they carry out the vital work of feeding the nation.
The availability of labour is not only the government’s responsibility, we have been and continue to do our utmost to attract and retain employees too. These efforts are extensive and intensive relating to Retention of the great people who currently work with us, Recruitment of new employees, Simplification of processes to do more with the people we have, and Lobbying to encourage others to do all that they can to help.
In addition, investing in a state-of-the-art business. In 2020 we invested over [between £25 million and £35 million], which was a conservative year due to the pandemic, and will continue to invest in equipment to ensure we remain as efficient as possible. However we still need [over 10,000] employees to function as a business. The following examples have been prioritised following feedback from our staff.
- Financial incentives where we are above the National Living Wage for the vast majority of our roles - Competitive pay rates across the board
- Utilising our existing employees wherever overtime is a reasonable option, so that the business can benefit from an increased number of productive hours in the factory and team members can benefit from additional remuneration
- Advertising extensively to make sure news about our vacancies reaches job seekers, through social media, over ¼ million leaflets distributed, newspaper adverts, bus adverts, frequently repeated radio advertising
- Networking contact recruitment – former employees have been contacted to see whether they would consider returning and we have a “refer a friend” scheme with escalating bonuses to incentivise personal referrals
- Recruitment Open Days have been held and more are being scheduled, both at our factories and on the high street. Unfortunately, sometimes there are no interested job seekers attending.
- Profile as an attractive employer – our flagship community programme [around £1m investment] has generated significant publicity and goodwill, raised awareness of our business in the areas we operate, and benefited dozens of community and voluntary groups
We are doing everything we possibly can and are expending an incredible amount of energy ourselves to retain, recruit, train, develop, engage and motivate our team members. Continued improvement in the assistance from government is welcome, necessary and urgent.