UK food manufacturing facing uncertain future over worker availability as Brexit looms
Food manufacturing in the UK must react to safeguard its existence against a growing crisis in securing a workforce for the future, warns a stark new report.
The sector is being squeezed by the twin challenges of a potential labour shortage if the supply of EU migrants dries up after Brexit and the need to recruit up to 140,000 new workers by 2024.
That is the striking reality evidenced in a briefing paper, entitled ‘Earning a Crust: A review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing’, co-produced by Manchester Metropolitan University for the Food Research Collaboration, an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.
With nearly a third of the UK food manufacturing workforce – some 117,000 employees – made up of EU migrants, food manufacturing has become hugely dependent on these workers, who are often clustered in low-pay or unskilled roles.
This unfolding labour problem, coupled with a food manufacturing skills shortage and the fact the sector is often viewed as an unattractive career option for many young people, should force the food industry to re-think its approach to recruitment, food manufacturing careers and, ultimately, how food is produced.
Dr Adrian Morley, a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the research, said: “Both the industry and government has to react to these challenges. They will need to find a fresh supply of labour if there are restrictions on EU migrants or invest in greater automation otherwise the UK could see food costs rise and become even more reliant on imported food.
“While these are significant challenges, we should also see them as opportunities.
“We need to decide as a society what type of food system we want – one that provides good quality jobs and long-term careers for the majority of its workers or one that is subject to the vagaries of world markets which are often dependent on low-skill, low paid work.”
To produce the report, Dr Morley and co-author Dr Michael Heasman, food industry expert and editor of The Food Sustainability Report, uniquely compiled and analysed an extensive list of existing workforce and economic data concerning food manufacturing – still the largest manufacturing sector in the UK.
They found particular challenges facing businesses related to skills shortages, pay, job security, career progression, working conditions and the introduction and application of technologies.
The authors said that government and industry should consider the impact of dominant supermarket chains and their relationship with manufacturers; the entrenched use of low-skill, low paid workers on casual, temporary or seasonal contracts; and the lack of information with which to inform policy and debate.
Dr Heasman said: “Food manufacturing is a hugely important economic sector, yet is struggles under downward costs pressures from supermarkets and a need to develop higher level skills to ensure its future success.
“The industry has also been shown to have a dark side with examples of worker exploitation and abuse which has fallen mainly on EU-migrant workers – it should be a priority to make sure such practices are eliminated from food supply.
“It is a time for a re-think of food manufacturing labour markets.
“While many individual food companies provide good workplaces, the potential labour crunch in food manufacturing calls for a collaborative approach and leadership from business, government, trade unions and educators to develop an integrated workforce strategy for the future.”
The co-authors recommend a new collaborative approach that should take into account local and regional employment needs and encompass the needs of smaller and medium-sized companies that comprise the majority of food businesses – with developing workers with the skills to innovate for a more sustainable and healthier food supply top of the list.