NI shelves ‘ may soon be empty of bacon, ham, sausages’ due to worker shortages, warns NI Pork and Bacon Forum

Northern Ireland consumers could soon see shelves empty of ham, bacon and pork sausages because Westminster is steadfastly refusing to take any action over the critical need for 300 foreign workers, an industry spokeswoman has said.

Deirdre McIvor, Chief Executive for the Northern Ireland Pork and Bacon Forum, has told the News Letter that normal industry plans for Christmas pork production are already in disarray due to a severe shortage of workers caused by Brexit and Covid. Ms McIvor speaks for 350 pig farmers across NI plus the main pork processors.

“The industry needs changes to immgration rules expedited to bring new workers in from beyond Europe but the red tape is ridiculous,” she said. “And we need these people urgently. It is desperate. We are running short [of labour] now already and the industry is facing a crisis as a result.  

“It rests with Westminster and the Home Office. Their policy is to not have workers coming in from abroad. We desperately need them but they are not responding.”

The NI Pork and Bacon Forum has warned that shelves could soon be empty of bacon and pork sausages as a shortage of 300 migrant workers brings the sector to its knees. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

Her organisation has been lobbying the government about the shortage of processors and butchers “continuously” since before Brexit. “Workers are just not there locally when we search on the local market. They either aren’t available or they don’t want to do the work.

“The critical issue is that if we cannot get pigs moved off farms pigs back up very very quickly and you are at risk of a grave welfare issue.

“Ultimately we face the grim reality of, perhaps, a cull of animals on welfare grounds’.” 

The News Letter asked if it was viable that NI shelves could be empty of bacon, pork sausages or ham within six months.

“It could be a lot sooner,” she added. “The product just won’t be on the shelves.”

Gareth Heatherington, Director of the Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre, says food processing has historically been reliant on migrant labour, even before Brexit and Covid.

“Employers were often criticised for not recruiting people from Northern Ireland. But their response very often was that they would love to but when they put job adverts out, the applications are overwhelmingly from the migrant population.” He adds that many migrant workers went back overseas during lockdown to be with their families, but that getting them back again “was always going to be more of a challenge”.

UK Agriculture Secretary George Eustice has indicated that the government is preparing to extend a seasonal worker scheme to tackle labour shortages in food production across the UK.

Speaking at the Balmoral Show on Thursday, he said he was looking at “changing the focus” of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) which is mainly used for seasonal workers who pick fruit and vegetables. “We hope to be able to say something on this shortly,” Mr Eustice added. He said there was “an acute labour shortage at the moment right across the UK economy” the BBC reported.