The UK’s new immigration policy and the food supply chain Contents

4Low-skilled migrants

31.The new immigration policy does not include a route for either workers who score insufficient points on the Government’s immigration scoring system (and therefore might be classed as “low-skilled”) or for temporary workers (with the notable exception of seasonal agricultural workers, see Chapter 5). At present there is a significant reliance on EU nationals to fill posts in the food and beverage manufacturing sector—the chart below demonstrates that this is a relatively recent development.

Figure 2: EU migrant labour in the food and beverage manufacturing sector69

Figure 2: EU migrant labour in the food and beverage manufacturing sector

32.In explaining this approach, the Government’s policy statement said “we need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe”.70 However, a recurring feature of Defra’s sector-by-sector analysis of the food supply chain, including for the beef, egg, meat processing, pig, poultry and sheep sectors, was that while “work is often classed as unskilled or low-skilled, there is a level of tacit knowledge, gained through experience in the industry”.71

33.Concerns were raised with us that the definition of “skilled labour” in the new immigration policy did not fully recognise the requirements of certain roles in the food supply chain, or the on-the-job training that is often provided. Tim Rycroft from the FDF said that “some of the jobs that these people are doing are things that are difficult, that take time to learn, that have to be done with a degree of care and attention but that are not currently defined as skilled”, and spoke of the need to “develop a more workable definition of skilled”.72 Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, told us that “quite a lot of EEA workers who come into our industry are in that sort of lower-skill area […] The jobs they do need skills, but we are very happy to train people to achieve those skills”.73 He added that he was “very concerned about the access to the people at the lower skill levels”, a view shared by the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA).74

34.NFU Scotland disputed “the equation of occupations deemed to be ‘low skilled’ as ones that utilise ‘cheap labour’”.75 Richard Griffiths disagreed with the notion that food manufacturers were attracted to overseas labour by low wages: he noted that the expansion of the EU during the 2000s increased the pool of available labour, while at the same time “there was a combination of lack of availability of a domestic workforce and […] [a] lack of willingness” of them to seek employment in the food supply chain and, he said, the poultry sector in particular. Therefore, “it is not about wages and it is not about pay; it is about getting the labour”.76 Furthermore, David Camp, Chief Executive, Association of Labour Providers (ALP), noted that the covid-19 pandemic had “shown us the importance and social value of many jobs that are paid at or around minimum wage”.77

35.The ALP conducted a survey in March 2020 which found that “over 90% of Food Growers and Manufacturers and over 95% of Labour Providers” disagreed with the absence of a low-skilled immigration route, and described the measure as “the biggest labour threat to the UK food industry and consequently UK food security and resilience” since the ALP’s formation in 2004.78 The BMPA noted that “across the UK 62% of workers in the industry are EU nationals”,79 and said that “the majority of businesses in the meat processing industry will struggle to get experienced workers through the new points-based system”.80 The NFU said that “the majority of businesses in Agriculture and Horticulture will be unable to get experienced workers through the new points-based system”.81 David Camp also highlighted the danger that “if there are no resident workers […] the only way to access those [workers] […] is from undocumented workers or from unrecognised sources”.82

36.The British Poultry Council told us that “in order to create good jobs that attract UK labour and roll out technological advancements, the poultry meat industry needs a period of three to five years to transition into this new phase of growth”.83 Arla Foods UK similarly said that “imposing the new [immigration] regime from 1 January 2021 risks causing serious disruption” and that it “did not leave enough time for new colleagues to be recruited and trained”.84 Furthermore, the impact of the covid-19 pandemic had “significantly reduced” the time to prepare, and it called for a “transitional period or transitional arrangements before the new regime takes full effect”.85

37.Defra acknowledged that “many low and unskilled roles in the food supply chain will not meet the criteria set out in this policy in either their salary or skill level”, citing the relatively low median wages in the agricultural, food manufacturing and drink manufacturing sector.86 Kevin Foster said “we expect that the food supply sector and others would, for more general recruitment, look in the first instance towards the domestic UK labour market including […] those who have status under the European settlement scheme”, adding “we have that pool of labour” within the UK.87 He stated that:

[Employers’] first priority should be to recruit in the domestic market, not least because of some of the sad figures we are seeing on unemployment […] If we have jobs that the sectors say pay reasonably, we should not view migration policy as an alternative to offering reasonable packages […] Immigration should be about where you cannot recruit.88

Retraining can help facilitate the movement of labour into the food supply chain: we raised with Victoria Prentis the possible continuation and promotion of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) as one method of encouraging people to seek a career in the food supply chain. The ULF is managed and administered by the Trade Union Congress’s “unionlearn” organisation under an agreement with the Department for Education (DfE), which directs the level and type of learning activity that should be supported by the Fund,89 although this funding will cease in March 2021.90

38.As noted in Chapter 3, the Skilled Worker visa route under the new immigration system has set a lower skill level (compared to the Tier 2 visa it replaces) that is equivalent to A-levels or Scottish Highers: Kevin Foster noted that this meant “people like butchers qualify”.91 He added that “there is a much broader sense” of what constitute skills under the new immigration rules, “rather than our current [at that time] rest of the world [Tier 2 skilled visa] rules, which are very academically focused. Inherently they say ‘graduates’, so that inherently focuses much more academically”.92

39.By focusing on academic qualifications, the new immigration policy takes a narrow focus on skills, although we welcome the Government’s decision to reduce the threshold to the equivalent of A-levels or Scottish Highers (RQF3/SCQF6). We are concerned that this policy will pose challenges for food manufacturers and others in the food supply chain who use lower skilled or lower paid staff, especially because of the limited time to prepare, exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic, and the absence of a transition period (as proposed in the superseded 2018 White Paper). However, the anticipated rise in UK unemployment next year might provide opportunities for the sector to encourage people to change careers—the food supply chain can do more to encourage this by making itself more attractive to potential employees. The Government can also take steps to support the sector to encourage UK workers and the unemployed to consider roles in food production and to re-train or re-skill. The Union Learning Fund—for which Government funding will cease in 2021—has been brought up as an example of how this could be achieved. As data for the food and drink manufacturing sector demonstrates, businesses were able to source almost all their workers domestically prior to the eastern expansion of the EU in 2004. It must also be accepted, however, that edible horticulture, and especially soft fruit, has enjoyed very significant growth since 2004 as a direct consequence of access to migrant EEA seasonal labour and we want the sector to grow further.

40.Food supply chain businesses should seek to attract the unemployed who may previously have worked in other sectors of the UK economy through better pay and conditions and offering training opportunities. The Government should also play a role in supporting the retraining of labour through engagement with employers and unions, and given its decision to terminate the Union Learning Fund should ensure there is an effective replacement for the valuable work that the Committee recognises it has done.

41.The lack of a transition period for the introduction of the new immigration policy creates risks and therefore Defra, the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions must work together to closely monitor the food supply chain to monitor the impact of the absence of a low skilled immigration route, and be prepared to take action that will swiftly alleviate any labour supply problems as the food supply chain adjusts to the new immigration policy.

69 House of Commons Library

70 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Policy Statement (February 2020), pp3–4

71 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (LFS0033) paras 1.3, 1.5, 1.7, 1.8–1.10

74 Q100; British Meat Processors Association (LFS0006) p1

75 NFU Scotland (LFS0003) para 7

77 Q8

78 Association of Labour Providers (LFS0017) paras 1.1 and 1.4

79 British Meat Processors Association (LFS0043) p1

80 British Meat Processors Association (LFS0022) p1

81 National Farmers Union (LFS0013) para 9

83 British Poultry Council (LFS0032) para 11

84 Arla Foods UK (LFS0014) para 15

85 Arla Foods UK (LFS0014) para 15

86 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (LFS0033) para 1.1.5

89 Unionlearn, ‘Introduction to the ULF’, accessed 14 December 2020

Published: 22 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement