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Britain’s Food Industry Is Facing A Severe Labour Crisis That Could Lead To Shortages

Ministers are under pressure to allow furloughed workers to keep their government support while earning extra by plugging gaps in food production lines.

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The food industry has warned that it faces a serious labour shortage that will soon affect food supply because the government’s economic package means furloughed workers are unable to plug gaps in production lines.

The bosses of two of Britain’s leading food manufacturers told BuzzFeed News that chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision to pay 80% of the wages of hospitality workers and people in other industries who can’t work because of the coronavirus pandemic has had severe unintended consequences.

The food industry was relying on laid-off workers from other industries to be seconded to food production lines. But the government’s measures mean those workers would lose out on receiving the 80% state-funded contribution to their old salaries if they take new jobs in the food sector.

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs told BuzzFeed News it was looking into the problem.

Denis Lynn, chair of Finnebrogue Artisan, a food producer that supplies every major UK supermarket, said his firm is facing a 40% labour shortage because it is finding it impossible to hire new workers.

“Our industry desperately needs more people to man our production lines if we are to feed the nation over the weeks ahead,” he told BuzzFeed News.

“The government’s 80% salary commitment to staff in temporarily redundant industries has killed our plan to second hospitality workers to food factories. There were thousands of responses to our industry’s call to action in Northern Ireland alone, but only a handful have signed up since their financial security was guaranteed by the Treasury.

“The government should allow hospitality staff to retain 80% of their previous pay packet while earning additional money from essential industries as an incentive. Right now, workers will pay a penalty if they choose to play their part in an essential national industry that needs help.

“We need people to produce and pack the food that will keep the supermarket shelves stocked. If, as projected, we lose 40% of our workforces over the weeks to come, the country will lose a major chunk of its food supply, too.”

His concerns were echoed by Jack Hamilton, chief operating officer of vegetable supplier Mash Direct, who told BuzzFeed News: “We are currently coping with surging demand in the supermarkets but we will not be able to feed the nation over the coming weeks and months unless we are able to bring on and train additional staff to fulfil demand.

“The training will be crucial as we will need the new recruits to not only be trained up in our processes but also in the new health and safety measures that we have been rolling out to ensure the safety of everyone on site."

“We have been working with our friends in the hospitality sector to second their staff who are temporarily out of work. Unfortunately the government’s 80% salary offer to these people restricts them from doing another job without losing the financial security that has been provided to them.

“If the government were to allow these people to retain their security while temporarily earning another wage to keep a vital national industry running in the country’s hour of need, we will be able to produce the food the nation requires."

Another industry insider said: “Our industry is facing a labour crisis that will result in food shortages soon if not resolved.

“HMG [the government] have fixed the financial crisis that was looming for individuals in the hospitality sector — but the unintended consequence of that has been to shut the door on a way to keep supermarkets supplied. That door needs to be blown wide open if we are going to successfully feed the nation over the coming weeks and months.”

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months. There are already brilliant recruitment efforts underway by [the] industry, and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.

“We will also be looking at other ways to make sure farmers have support they need ahead of the busy harvest months while also keeping workers safe and protected.”

Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alex Wickham at alex.wickham@buzzfeed.com.

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