Staff shortages leading to crisis in the pig sector
31st August 2021
Perfectly healthy pigs will end up being destroyed and wasted unless the Government takes urgent action to alleviate crippling staff shortages, NPA chief executive Zoe Davies has warned.
Labour shortages are affecting companies across the food and drink sector, and the backlog of work is having severe consequences for UK pig farmers. There is currently an estimated 14,000 jobs across the sector in need of filling, many of which are in meat processing positions. The result is roughly 69,000 pigs currently on UK farms that should already have gone to slaughter.
Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association (NPA) has spoken on the BBC’s Farming Today programme to help raise awareness of the growing problem. She noted the organisation’s concern over farmers’ wellbeing, with the issues potentially causing further financial hardships at an already difficult time. As pigs remain on farm for too long they require more feed, at a time of exceptionally high input costs, and continue to grow, which results in further financial hardship as farmers are penalised for bringing pigs to slaughter overweight.
The NPA’s warning is that this could lead to thousands of pigs being destroyed in an attempt to limit financial loss. The organisation says the backlog is currently growing at a rate of 15,000 pigs per week, meaning things will only get worse without intervention.
The backlog has been caused by a combination of post-Brexit and Covid-19 staffing issues. Many seasonal labourers who would previously have come to the UK are now either unable to return under the new points-based immigration scheme, or unwilling to leave home due to Covid concerns.
Farmers ‘unable to wait for staff changes’
The NPA has already been lobbying the government to intervene in the mounting crisis, but says it has so far had limited response. The organisation is calling for the government to make it easier for EU nationals to enter the country. However there has been resistance to the request as officials hoped that a domestic labour force could fill the positions. The NPA, however, argues that this does not address the immediacy of the current issues, with farmers unable to wait for staff training as their pigs continue to fatten.
Most recently it has been proposed that the staffing shortfall could be filled by prisoners, a proposal that has been met with a mixed response. Tony Goodger of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers also spoke on the BBC show and pointed out that there are far too few people currently in UK prisons to make a meaningful impact on the 14,000 open positions. The overwhelming message from the programme was the need for a plan that will have an immediate impact.
It is a request coming from bodies across the industry as the backlog creates an increasingly precarious situation. British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) chief executive Nick Allen said some processors are 25% down on capacity and having to cut down on lines saying: “The Government has got to do something really quickly. We need a quick fix – we understand longer term that we all have to adapt, and either mechanise or get British labour doing these jobs, but in this immediate short-term, on the back of Covid, we can’t do it. Without the short-term fix, there’ll be long-term damage.”
“Desperately” seeking government support
Organisations have called on the government to bring forward the review of the shortage occupation list, adding professions in the food sector which would allow for the easier employment of foreign nationals.
Zoe Davies issued the stark warning: “We are desperately seeking support from the Government, particularly the Home Office, to facilitate access to these people now. For the second time in under a year the pig sector is facing some really tough choices, which we really shouldn’t have to be taking as demand for British pork is still strong.
“If Government doesn’t take action, perfectly healthy pigs will end up being destroyed and wasted.
“We are expecting an exodus of pig keepers from this year into next, as they have simply had enough – for almost a year now they have been losing money. We already only supply 40% of the pork eaten here – is it right that we should be importing more from the EU – the ultimate irony of Brexit.”