Brexit’s belated labour pains

No simple solution to filling growing gaps in the workforce

Opinions on the pros and cons of Brexit have raged one way and the other from the moment the deal was sealed, but the stark reality that leaving the EU has contributed significantly to the UK’s labour shortages is undeniable.

While the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have also had a major impact, the fact remains that since Brexit most Europeans have gone back to their home countries and not returned to these shores – even when offered the opportunity.

Figures show that the sectors which depended most upon the freedom of movement of EU workers have suffered most. In the tourism and hospitality sectors, hotels, bars and restaurants have struggled to find staff, while agriculture and horticulture have probably suffered to an even greater extent.

Before Brexit, EU workers, mainly from eastern Europe, comprised almost all the seasonal fruit picking and vegetable harvesting workforce. Since Brexit, farmers have reported, and television and news photographs have confirmed, that many harvests have simply not been picked, with fruit and flowers left to rot in the fields.

In the pork industry, a backlog of animals growing too fat due to a lack of lorry drivers and abattoir workers meant than many pigs had to be culled. And UK shoppers saw for themselves evidence of the HGV driver shortage when confronted with empty shelves as supermarkets struggled to get stock delivered.

Under the UK’s new immigration rules, EU nationals no longer have preferential treatment when seeking work here. Instead, a new points-based system is designed to attract skilled workers, but with notable exceptions, it is not necessarily “skilled” workers who are most needed in the short or medium term.

In response to industry pressure, the government said in December that its “seasonal workers scheme” for farms would be extended for three years, with 30,000 visas available to foreign migrants in 2022. But the scheme will taper down from 2023, with a national campaign planned for UK residents to “pick for Britain”.

Few would argue that this sounds more like a slogan straight out of Second World War propaganda. The NFU has voiced serious reservations on its appeal to most Brits whilst at the same time accusing the government of “papering over the cracks with short-term solutions”.

Those solutions included offering 600 temporary visas to foreign butchers (less than 100 applied), and a further scheme for poultry workers, which also met with little success. Another short-term plan to tempt up to 5,000 overseas HGV drivers back onto our roads was nothing short of a disaster, with the number of initial applicants said to be as low as nine.

European industry bodies say many drivers have found good pay and working conditions back in the EU and that the UK offer was not attractive enough. As the year goes on this may also prove to be the case in other sectors. Job vacancies here stand at a record high, but it seems that offers of temporary visas have done nothing to ease a potentially permanent problem. 

 

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