Today
Sat 23 October 2021

The Chief Executive of Scotland Food & Drink explains how a hard Brexit caused the current crisis, with the lowest stocks in shops and warehouses since records began

Crisis is not a word that should be thrown around frivolously – certainly not when talking about food supply.  Yet, a crisis is now developing with labour shortages stretching some food supply chains to breaking point. From farming and fishing to manufacturing, haulage, retail and hospitality, we don’t have the people to keep this vital industry going, let alone drive an economic recovery.

Food and drink is not one of those ‘nice to have’ industries. Safeguarding food production and supply is one of the core responsibilities for any government, anywhere.  However, it has been taken for granted for decades. Even now, when those on the frontline are sounding warnings about shortages, little is being done. Society is most endangered when the things we take for granted begin to fail.

The hardest of Brexits was inflicted on industry at the height of the Coronavirus, when food supply chains were already strained. 

The shortage of carbon dioxide has seen the Government move quickly, no doubt haunted by the spectre of mass culls of livestock on farms and no meat on the shelves.  Yet, this swift action sits in stark contrast to the response to labour shortages, already causing empty supermarket shelves and shut restaurants. This is the real ticking time bomb.

Some of the causes of labour shortages are long-term and systemic. In the short term, the Coronavirus pandemic has been an earthquake in the labour market. Yet, it is an inescapable truth that Brexit has massively accelerated the problem. The hardest of Brexits was inflicted on industry at the height of the Coronavirus when food supply chains were already strained.


More than one million people from overseas have left the UK during the pandemic, mostly returning home to EU countries. The post-Brexit immigration system now makes it extremely difficult for many of them to return if they wished to. We have an immigration policy that is at best ineffective and, at worst, hostile to the very people we need to attract to this country.

EU nationals make large parts of our industry tick and have done so for years. They fill roles from the factory floor to the boardroom. They have injected talent and energy into our businesses and vibrancy to our communities. All of which is now being eroded.

No one in the food industry is immune to the current workforce shortage. Household names with deep pockets and sophisticated supply chains are getting into trouble; McDonald’s, Nando’s, Starbucks, the list goes on. Less visible are tens of thousands of small businesses struggling to find staff, order supplies and make deliveries.

Of course, the industry itself has a big responsibility to drive solutions. We need to raise the attractiveness of our sector, embrace apprenticeships and training. We need to be ambassadors for fair and innovative work practices, as well as to drive automation.  Companies are already working with parole officers to employ past offenders and with housing associations to employ the homeless. I’ve spoken to businesses offering jobs and training to Afghan refugees. However, industry can’t fix this alone.  

Solutions matter more than a debate over causes. However, one of the causes is also a major barrier to finding solutions. Brexit has infected the normal way government works. One minister this week said everyone had moved on from Brexit. Yet it haunts Whitehall policy-making and is fatally compromising how government works with industry on serious issues. Too often, we now see experts belittled, warnings dismissed, evidence ignored and problems denied.  

On labour shortages, instead of meaningful engagement, there are glib responses. “Just hire locals”. “Just increase wages”. All of which do a disservice to a complex problem.  Wage rates are rocketing in many roles (brace yourself for serious food price inflation to add to your soaring energy bills). But still, vacancies are unfilled. In many areas, there just isn’t an unemployed local workforce waiting to be unleashed. 

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We desperately need a Home Office mindset shift on immigration. A temporary visa for foreign workers is no panacea, but it could make a difference, even if it may already be too late to save the Christmas trade. 

Stocks in shops and warehouses are now at the lowest since records began 40 years ago. This is an incredibly dangerous position as we approach the annual peak in sales ahead of Christmas. We are trying to work our way out of this crisis as an industry, but right now we need government intervention to, at the very least, try and alleviate the short-term issues. 

I’ve worked in the agri-food industry for more than 20 years and I have never known business owners to be this concerned about the impact of growing gaps in the workforce. Shortages are going to get worse and, for some food products, they could be permanent.

Some of those who sounded the alarm at the end of free movement were described as the architects of “Project Fear”. Well, Project Fear is now Project Here. There may be no silver bullet to fix the labour shortage issue, but denying the problem or ignoring it will be disastrous. We appear to have a Government strategy based on crossing fingers and hoping it will be ‘alright on the night’. Well, it won’t be and it’s dangerous when it comes to keeping the nation fed. Our industry is ready to work in partnership with the Government on this. But are they going to come to the table?

James Withers is the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, the trade body representing more than 400 companies in the farming, fishing food and drink supply chain and which works to drive sales of Scottish produce across the UK and globally

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