Coronavirus impact on labour supply fuels food shortage fears

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Is a COVID-19 labour shortage a long-term threat to the food supply? ©GettyImages-cyano66
Is a COVID-19 labour shortage a long-term threat to the food supply? ©GettyImages-cyano66

Related tags coronavirus COVID-19 food shortage labour shortage

European shoppers are finding themselves faced with empty shelves as coronavirus panic buying places the food supply under short-term pressure. But could longer-term impact on the agri-food labour force actually have more significant implications? FoodNagivator investigates.

An unequivocal message is coming from European capitals and supermarket headquarters alike. Shoppers should resist the urge to panic buy. There is enough capacity in the system for all, as long as everyone stays calm and stops hording.

As UK supermarkets said this week in a joint letter to their customers: “We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop. We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.”

In an effort to keep the wheels turning, European authorities have taken steps to keep food moving across boarders as Member States impose travel restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19.

This week, the European Commission reiterated that ‘free movement of goods is fundamental’ to the operation of the Single Market. This is ‘particularly crucial for essential goods such as food supplies… Control measures should not cause serious disruption of supply chains’.

Difficulties with transportation, distribution and delivery are certainly adding complexity at a time when demand for food stuffs has jumped significantly. But governments and the food industry remain confident that food security is safeguarded.

As France’s Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy and Finance, put it: “There are no shortages.”

The supply of ‘food and basic necessities’ is ‘guaranteed’ he stated. “That will continue to be [the situation] in the days and weeks to come.”

However, a group of German farmers is now warning of possible longer-term issues that could place increased pressure on the European agri-food chain. 

Labour supply drop could hit harvests

In a letter to the Federal authorities, a coalition of farming organisations – including the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) – stressed that coronavirus and the measures taken across Europe to contain the chain of infection will have a direct impact on food production. In the immediate term, the fruit and vegetable farms that reply on seasonal workers from abroad are ‘currently particularly affected’, they warned.

GettyImages-dmaroscar farm labourer agricultural worker
Farmers call for relaxation of labour regulations in face of COVID-19 ©GettyImages-dmaroscar

The farming representatives called for a series of short-term exemptions and modifications to labour regulations to enable them to ‘do the urgent work necessary for the food supply’. These include an extension to maximum daily and weekly hours and reduction in rest periods required under the Working Hours Act; increased salaries for low-paid workers; extending maximum length of employment for overseas workers; easier access to the labour market for third country workers and improved earning opportunities for the unemployed and asylum seekers. The unions also want to see a relaxation in employment laws to ‘facilitate cooperation between companies’.

In a press conference to reassure people that the food supply is secure, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner addressed some of these concerns directly.

It is clear that food and agriculture must be counted as ‘critical infrastructure’ alongside healthcare and other emergency staff, she told journalists yesterday (17 March). As such, Klöckner suggested that ‘emergency care’ should be provided to the children of people in the food supply chain as German schools remain closed.

Insisting that the ‘food supply is secured’ and that the supply chain is ‘largely intact’, Klöckner said reports that supermarkets are closed are ‘false’. She stressed that food imports and exports continue to flow and noted that Germany is self sufficient in various agricultural products - from potatoes to dairy, cereals and pork.

However, Klöckner acknowledged that action is needed to ensure food production continues uninterrupted through the COVID-19 outbreak. She revealed that her department is currently working on ‘pragmatic solutions’ to the labour issue for the retail and agriculture sectors.

‘Times of crisis require unconventional methods’

German Agriculture Minister Klöckner tells a press conference on food security that she is considering 'unconventional' measures to shore up labour...
German Agriculture Minister Klöckner tells a press conference on food security that she is considering 'unconventional' measures to shore up labour supply Source - BMEL

“You cannot miss harvests,”​ she said adding, that you cannot harvest what has not been planted.

“We are aware of the concerns here - such as the danger of a lack of seasonal workers from abroad due to travel restrictions. This affects not only asparagus and strawberries, but also vegetable growing. Planting work must now be done.”

Klöckner suggested that the Federal authorities are looking at relaxing regulations that are ‘too rigid’ and noted that people made unemployed in sectors like catering due to coronavirus could move into agriculture.

“I am thinking of regionally organized job exchanges. Times of crisis require unconventional methods. If you can and want to, you should be able to help [produce food] and earn money. That would be a win-win situation.

“We all have a responsibility in the food industry and society. We have to pull together.”

Flexible working ‘absolutely’ part of the solution

The labour issues likely to hit the European food industry can, in part, be solved through flexible working, according to the UK’s leading supplier of flexible workers.

Redwigwam, which has over 110,000 workers on its database, has said that it will scrap its fees until further notice. This will allow companies to use the Redwigwam’s online platform to find workers suitable for various short-term and ad hoc jobs.

A number of food industry clients already leverage the platform, including Kellogg, Leon, Innocent Drinks and Deliveroo.

“Coronavirus is already having a massive impact on businesses across the UK and the Government has made clear that the situation will get worse over the coming weeks. Some of the most under pressure sectors are food and beverage and retail at a time when the industry is under huge strain to ensure the country doesn’t run out of supplies,”​ Lorna Davidson, founder and CEO of Liverpool-based Redwigwam, explained.

The use of flexible workers can ‘absolutely’ help the industry manage the coronavirus pandemic – and also work through the aftermath of the crisis when businesses will have had to reduce headcount, she told FoodNavigator. “We have a solution to allow them to build back up at the right pace.”

Redwigwam’s workforce offers a wide range of expertise – from school leavers and students to parents and retirees. “Our system algorithm matches [a job’s requirements] with skills so you get the right people in place when you need them,”​ Davidson elaborated.

At a time when there has been heightened criticism of the exploitation of casual labour by the ‘gig economy’, Davidson highlighted the benefits that being part of the Redwigwam community bring. “They get all the benefits of being fully employed, but on a flexible basis. This means they are entitled to holiday pay, membership of our pension scheme and statutory sick pay, if they have worked the required levels.”

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