Platform: Time is of the essence to protect NI Pork sector
I speak to our members daily, and it is clear that our local pig farmers and processors are under pressure like never before.
The key factor in this is an acute labour shortage, which became critically evident in July. At this point I redoubled lobbying efforts although I have been raising the issue of access to labour well before Brexit.
There was some positive news when government announced 800 temporary, six-month visas to help alleviate the pressures on the pork industry. However, it must be noted that the visas are for the whole of the UK. Locally, each processing site will be allocated a number of these visas and they are currently working through a process which has yet to be fully clarified. It is, however, becoming clear that this will take time – something we are rapidly running out of.
As a sector we welcome any help, but the truth is this is not enough and frankly, is just putting a sticking plaster on the wound.
At this stage we simply don’t know how many people will want to come for six months. We do know that it can take at least three months to train butchery staff and up to six months for slaughter hall operatives. So, what happens when they are trained and up to speed? They will have to leave. What is the solution then? Another six-month visa? Another three-month training period? A continuation of piece-meal, ineffective attempts to solve the problem?
We are looking at automation, but that too is a longer-term solution and won’t solve the issue facing us right here, right now. We desperately need workers on visas for one to two years at least, if we are to have any positive impact on the current situation.
Meanwhile the backlog on farms is a hugely pressing issue. Our farmers are under extreme pressure and I am genuinely worried about their mental health. They have run out of space for livestock, their finances are under pressure and all contingencies have been exhausted.
Processors are at a loss too. Without butchers they have been unable to fulfil customer orders – including Christmas orders. This damages customer relationships and retailers may be forced to go elsewhere to get what they need.
We have met with Minister Poots again and the Pork & Bacon Forum is preparing a plan on how we might deal with the backlog. This is not easy. DEFRA has offered Private Storage Aid and other incentives to processors to manage weekend kills. The detail of this is not yet confirmed, but it will be for GB only. We are asking that DAERA urgently provides similar support measures for NI. I cannot overstate the gravity of the situation surrounding the backlog.
I have also engaged last week with the Commons Select Committee, which has been set up by UK Government to report on the labour issue to the Home Office. At this private round table, I presented again the detrimental impact the current immigration policy is having on our pork industry and reiterated the specific challenges we face in NI and our key asks. It was a useful and frank discussion and there will be follow-up. The Committee agreed that time is of the essence.
To be clear - we are not demanding open-ended immigration, but rather practical and measured access to the skilled global labour we need to sustain and grow our industry.
The greatest irony in this is that our sector has huge potential – the UK is only 50% self-sufficient in pork - and customer demand for British pork is strong. However, without labour our growth potential amounts to nothing and product will be imported from Europe or beyond to satisfy demand. Our industry may disappear. Surely this isn’t what government wants?
The NI Pork sector can help fill the gap in demand for British pork. We are primed to do so having the best quality product. However, we need support to access labour right now to help us survive before we can once again thrive.