Christmas ham and pork availability won’t be same as normal years despite u-turn on migrant worker visas, says leading Co Down farmer

Kilkeel pig farmer Trevor Shields says the UK industry is in desperation due to a shortage of workers to process pigs.Kilkeel pig farmer Trevor Shields says the UK industry is in desperation due to a shortage of workers to process pigs.
Kilkeel pig farmer Trevor Shields says the UK industry is in desperation due to a shortage of workers to process pigs.
A leading pig farmer was “quietly happy” yesterday when the UK government did a dramatic u-turn and agreed to grant visas for up to 800 migrant workers in order to break the logjam in processing the animals.

It comes after warnings that up to 150,000 pigs could be destroyed as waste as the labour shortage in meat processing has led to a backlog of animals ready for slaughter. 

Measures announced by the Government on Thursday include up to 800 visas for butchers to come to the UK for up to six months. Under the plans, there will also be funding for additional meat storage, moves to introduce processing of animals on Saturdays and the potential for longer working hours.

However there is no clarity yet about what specifically the news will mean for NI, where there are 350 pig farmers and the abattoirs are reporting a shortfall in some 300 workers. A combination of Covid lockdown and Brexit has seen many migrant workers return home, leaving pigs backing up on farms. UK citizens have little interest in the jobs.

Kilkeel pig farmer Trevor Shields told the News Letter: “Well it is good news but we still don’t know when it is going to happen for Northern Ireland. England had a backlog of 120,000 pigs last week.”

Despite being a chairman of the Pro Pork Producers group, representing 40 farmers, he has not heard any details of how NI may benefit.

He agreed that a major hurdle had been crossed, in that the government has now relented in principle on the need to bring in foreign workers to help, something it was refusing to do.

“Absolutely. Hopefully they can go ahead now and get the problem addressed. If they can bring in 800 workers they can bring in more if need be.”

“I was quietly happy when I heard the news. But the sad thing is that we had to put so much pressure on. They could have done this a few weeks ago and it would have alleviated the problem a lot sooner.”

However it is probably too late to avert some impact on the Christmas market.

“Animals being processed now will be for the Christmas market and that hasn’t happened so there certainly won’t be the availability of normal years.”

UFU deputy president William Irvine said: “After a long period of intense lobbying by the UFU, we are glad that finally, some positive progression has been made on the issue of labour shortages. Processors across Northern Ireland have been seriously understaffed for quite some time now and this has been putting pressure on our farmers to house extra livestock as well as impacting their cash flow – especially when you take into account ongoing high feed prices.

“However, while the movement on temporary visas is an encouraging start to help fill the vacancies in the processing plants and hopefully, help them to get back to the level of processing that is required, we fear it’s not going to fix the problem entirely, but it may be a start. The number of temporary visas granted do fall short, but we appreciate the government making them available to workers outside the UK.

In the meantime, we will continue to engage at the highest level. Other food processing sectors must not be forgotten as labour affects across the board.” The UFU will continue to lobby to overcome the labour shortage, he added.

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