According to a briefing paper published by the Food Research Collaboration, this unfolding labour problem should force the food industry to re-think its approach to recruitment, food manufacturing careers and how food is produced.
“Both the industry and government 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,” said Dr Adrian Morley, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the paper.
The paper entitled ‘Earning a Crust: A review of labour trends in UK food manufacturing’, fears food manufacturing faces a squeeze on the supply of EU migrants as it becomes reduced or even dries up after Brexit.
Food manufacturing, like other food sectors, has become increasingly reliant on migrant workers, especially EU migrants, over the past 10-12 years.
Nearly a third of the UK food and drink manufacturing workforce, around 117,000 workers, is now made up of EU migrants. This trend has accelerated in recent years.
As well as recruitment, the paper also turned its attention to worker conditions with the ingrained use of low-skill, low paid workers on casual, temporary or seasonal contracts.
Problems in the labour supply are also compounded by a food manufacturing skills shortage and an unfavourable view of the industry by young people, who see it as an unattractive career option.
The need to recruit up to 140,000 new workers by 2024 to replace retirees could be an issue if recruitment measures to attract young people do not prove effective.
Further analysis into the food labour market has also bought additional skills shortage challenges to the forefront including pay, job security, career progression and the impact of technology.
The authors also urged the government and industry to re-examine the role of supermarket chains and their relationship with manufacturers.
“Labour and job issues are compounded further by the structural tensions many commentators see in the food sector with increasing downward cost pressures, driven by supermarket competition, impacting supply chains including food manufacturing,” the paper said.
In 2010 the UK government introduced a Groceries Supply Code of Practice following the 2008 Competition Commission Market Investigation into supermarkets which found retailers were transferring excessive risk and unexpected costs to their direct suppliers.
A further measure was added in June 2013 with the appointment of a Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure supermarkets treated suppliers lawfully and fairly.
While the paper describes the enormity of these impending challenges, it also comments on the opportunities it creates to reshape the food sector to ensure its long-term health and competitiveness.
“It is a time for a re-think of food manufacturing labour markets,” added co-author Dr Michael Heasman, food industry expert and editor of The Food Sustainability Report.
“While many individual food companies provide good workplaces, the potential labour crunch in food manufacturing calls for a collaborative approach and leadership from business, government, trade unions and educators to develop an integrated workforce strategy for the future.”
The paper outlined a series of actions that emphasised better working relationships that take into account local and regional employment needs of smaller and medium-sized companies that comprise the majority of food businesses.
Priority should be given to developing workers with the skills to innovate for a more sustainable and healthier food supply.