The minister was questioned by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee yesterday (14 Dec) over the Government’s response to the labour crisis, which has led to thousands of animals being culled and food left to rot in fields.
During questioning, Foster was accused of deflecting the blame for the difficulties in securing labour for struggling producers away from his department and those it worked with onto the industry.
He pointed at the systems that had been put in place since December 2020 that uncapped the number of skilled workers – including poultry processors and butchers – that could enter the country on working visas.
Despite heavy criticism from the committee, Foster was adamant in his belief that the systems in place to allow foreign workers into the country were robust in their scope and application.
His main point of contention was the lack of applications that had been made by businesses to become sponsors for skilled labourers from overseas.
When asked if putting butchers on the shortage occupation list would help, Foster disagreed. He argued that the only reason the shortage occupation list would boost recruitment would be if manufacturers were willing to pay lower wages – something he noted manufacturers had been quoted to not do.
If a manufacturer was willing to pay the £25k+ wages for a skilled worker, they could already do so through the skilled worker visa, a system that has no caps.
Foster went on to highlight the lack of applications for skilled work visas while continuing to criticise the industry for its lack applications for the temporary visas that it had demanded – of the 800 pork butchery visas made available, less than 100 applications had been made.
Disconnect from business
However, the EFRA committee slammed the minister’s seeming disconnect from the stories that their local producers and constituents had shared with them regarding the struggle find labour and the costs – both in time and money – of trying to navigate the processes to secure visas for overseas workers.
To this end, the EFRA committee felt that Foster was not listening to the struggles of the food and farming industries, and that the Home Office was not supplying enough visas for foreign workers in a timely, efficient manner.
Chair of the committee Neil Parish said: “Employers need workers and cannot get them in time. Pigs are being culled and wasted because there are not enough butchers in the abattoirs. Fruit is rotting on trees and crops are not being planted.
“There appears to be a disconnect between this reality and what Mr Foster says. Again and again during our evidence session he said visa systems were in place to resolve the labour shortages. The food and farming sector tells us this is not the case.”
Lack of experienced recruiters
Criticism was also levelled at the Government’s choice of recruitment bodies to find temporary workers.
In response to the committee hearing, a spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) highlighted the lack of experience the Government appointed recruitment bodies had in hiring butchers.
“Part of the problem is that the four Government appointed recruitment companies in charge of finding and processing applicants have no previous knowledge or experience of recruiting butchers,” the spokesman explained. “They’re only now getting up to speed with what they should be looking for and how to accurately assess skill levels.
“The other issue is that the deadline for finding suitable applicants is 31 December, after which all efforts to find butchers will stop. BMPA would like that deadline extended to give the agencies a bit more time to do their job.”