'It's easier to get foreign nationals': The industry struggling to attract British workers

Suella Braverman suggested ditching migrant workers for jobs in butchery, as well as fruit picking, HGV driving and building

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaking during the National Conservatism Conference at the Emmanuel Centre, central London. Picture date: Monday May 15, 2023. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaking during the National Conservatism Conference at the Emmanuel Centre, central London. (Getty Images)

The meat production industry is struggling to maintain enough staff to produce at full capacity, experts have warned - even as home secretary Suella Braverman called for fewer migrant workers to be let into the UK.

Addressing the National Conservatism Conference audience in Westminster, Ms Braverman said the country must not "forget how to do things for ourselves", arguing it was "not racist" to want to control the UK's borders.

"There is no good reason why we can't train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers," she added.

Her speech will be seen as a warning to Cabinet colleagues against relaxing immigration visa rules in a bid to boost growth, and comes as Rishi Sunak grapples with signs of discontent and division with his party’s ranks.

'Hard to attract people'

It's certainly the case that employment numbers in the food and beverage and haulage industries are down, with chronic labour shortages in such industries a legacy of the COVID pandemic that saw foreign-born workers leave the country and disrupted job training.

And, according to a recent report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (‘ICIBI’), “bringing foreign labour into the industry plays a pivotal role in the UK’s production of food and directly contributes to the country’s food security”.

A spokesperson from the British Meat Processors Association told Yahoo News UK that a combination of workers having to live in close geographic proximity to the plant and the type of work required means recruitment is an issue.

"It is a little bit harder to attract people into the industry because of the nature of the job. It is quite a challenging, physical job and it just doesn't suit everybody," the spokesperson said.

"There isn't a huge pool of available people. It's been a lot easier to draft in migrant workers - people coming in from the EU, ready and trained in the knife skills they need. That's how it's been working."

According to the British Meat Processors Association, there is currently around a 10% labour shortfall - which would be at 15% if the industry was at full capacity, but has been dampened by lower demand thanks to higher costs and less livestock.

In her speech Braverman argued that training homegrown workers in such industries would cut down the need for migration.

"High skilled workers support economic growth," she said. "And where the labour market has acute or structural shortages, as with the NHS, it is of course right that we should have an immigration system agile enough to plug those shortages.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15: Secretary of State for the Home Department Suella Braverman speaks during the National Conservatism Conference at The Emmanuel Centre on May 15, 2023 in London, England. Traditionalist conservatives gather for their annual conference in Central London. National Conservatism values the concepts of custom, convention and tradition over individualism.  (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Braverman said more people should train to be butchers or fruit pickers. (Getty Images)

"But we need to get overall immigration numbers down. And we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves. There is no good reason why can’t train up enough truck drivers, butchers, fruit pickers, builders, and welders …

"It’s not xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration is unsustainable in terms of housing supply, public services and community relations."

However, the British Meat Processors Association said it as been trying for "quite a number of years" to increase the local workforce.

"All the way through the workforce crisis we have been trying to recruit people into the industry... it just is hard, so I think we probably would like to have a bit more flexibility - it's not a simple question," the spokesperson added.

A 2021 report establishing issues within the food and beverages industry highlighted around 500,000 vacancies in the food and farming sector, including fruit pickers, while the BBC reported around 41,000 available roles in the transport and storage sector.