The British meat sector has a long history that was typically dominated by high street butchers. In the last 30 years, the processing sector has gradually moved away from smaller butcher shops to large meat processing sites serving the multiple retailers, reflecting the wider shift to weekly shopping in a large retail environment.
However, meat processing by its very nature is labour-intensive and difficult to automate because of the flexibility, dexterity and judgement of a skilled butcher that’s needed on parts of the production line, claims BMPA.
It has has published a report which lays out the labour challenges the industry faces, the recruitment efforts that have already been undertaken and how firms plan to tackle this in the future.
It has also conducted a survey of its members to assess the makeup of workers in their plants which found the reliance on overseas labour has come down since 2018, it is still very high with EU workers typically making up over 60% and in some cases over 70% of workforces.
Up until the coronavirus crisis, it was difficult to recruit British workers into the meat industry due to a reluctance to take on this type of role and very low unemployment in the areas where plants are located.
The meat industry is part of the web of food manufacturers providing safe, nutritious food to Britons and helping to maintain food security in the UK. The industry is still reasonably labour-intensive, and proposed changes to the current free movement of people in the EU are of significant concern to the sector, particularly its ability to recruit and retain suitable workers to meet its needs.
Any negative impact on the meat processing industry will likely have knock on effects throughout the supply chain, including the farmer, the customer (i.e. retailer) and, ultimately, the consumer.
"While it’s hoped that more UK workers will now be attracted into the profession, there still remain significant challenges to fill skilled positions,” said Anna Proffitt, the report's author and BMPA's technical policy manager, BMPA.
“Even if more British people step forward for training, there would still be a minimum two-year skills gap (the time it takes to train a new recruit) which would need to be filled by fully skilled workers.
"These skilled workers can only come from abroad and that’s why BMPA is calling on the Home Office to include Butchers on the Shortage Occupation List. We also want Government to work with the industry to deliver public outreach to attract more young people as well as those switching career into the industry and provide easier access to the Apprenticeship Levy fund to finance their training."
Proffitt added, this is an industry operating on wafer thin margins, and any cost impact is unable to be absorbed by companies for any period of time. Based on 2019 figures the sector is in growth and wishes to continue to grow and prosper.
However, the uncertainty over the future of labour availability is at risk of stunting this growth as the costs and resource burden for recruitment, or alternatives such as mechanisation, become prohibitively high.
“It is important we encourage UK and non-UK workers to the industry to help fill both the skills and overall labour gap. By working with government to make this happen, businesses can be fit for the future,” she said.
It should be recognised that the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the workforce will likely be large but is yet unknown. Recruitment in the meat industry remains a challenge, with over 85% of businesses reporting difficulty in recruiting in the last 12 months. Whilst the average UK vacancy takes 4.5 weeks to fill, the meat industry has reported it taking 1-3 months, and even sometimes up to six months.
The perception of working in the meat industry can also be challenging; plants are designed to deliver the highest hygiene and food safety standards as a result some areas are cold and noisy. Workers also wear lots of PPE, and the shift work is sometimes during unsociable hours.
Many of the jobs are quite physical, and some of the work is repetitive. Despite this, factory standards are very high, particularly around the fabric of the building/machinery and worker hygiene and safety. Additionally, there is opportunity for personal growth and development, and motivated individuals are often promoted in the business.