UK food manufacturing facing uncertain future over worker availability as Brexit looms

A little bit of self-promotion now. The Food Research Collaboration has just published a new briefing paper written by myself and my colleague Dr Adrian Morley, who is based at Manchester Metropolitan University, which argues food manufacturing in the UK must react to safeguard its existence against a growing crisis in securing a workforce for the future.

Our research warns that UK food manufacturing 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.

Our briefing paper, entitled ‘Earning a Crust: A review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing’, shows nearly a third of the UK food manufacturing workforce – some 117,000 employees – is now made up of EU migrants. Food manufacturing has become hugely dependent on these workers, who are often clustered in low-pay or unskilled roles.

We say that 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.

Adrian, a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, says: “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.”

We found particular challenges facing food businesses related to skills shortages, pay, job security, career progression, working conditions, and the introduction and application of technologies. 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.

We point out how food manufacturing is a hugely important economic sector, yet it struggles under downward costs pressures from supermarkets and a need to develop higher level skills to ensure its future success.

We also don’t ignore the fact that the industry has 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.

Time to re-think food manufacturing jobs strategy

We argue it is a time for a re-think of food manufacturing labour markets and recommend a new collaborative approach and leadership from business, government, trade unions and educators. We say that this approach 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 – including developing workers with the skills to innovate for a more sustainable and healthier food supply top of the list.

The briefing paper is published by the Food Research Collaboration which is an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It facilitates joint working amongst and between academics and civil society organisations (CSO) to improve the UK food system. It is a unique collaboration of over 500 academic and CSO members.

See the full report here: