UK worker shortage threatens Christmas turkey supply
October 13, 2021 11:46 AM
In a dark wooden barn in the countryside of southeast England, farmer Patrick Deeley is surrounded by a throng of 600 white turkeys at feeding time.
But the typical sight at Flower Farm near Godstone, in Surrey, belies a crisis: a lack of seasonal workers that will leave Deeley struggling to meet high festive demand.
"I don't feel confident that I'll get sufficient staff to be able to do the job that I need before Christmas," Deeley told AFP. "The pressure will be on."
Normally, Deeley could count on 12 seasonal workers by mid-December to help him pack, prepare and deliver the birds. For the last 15 years, he has recruited from Europe.
But Britain has now been out of the European Union for nearly 12 months. Free movement of people and workers across the bloc has ended, and tougher immigration rules have been introduced.
Unlike previous years, Deeley has not been able to attract a single worker from the European mainland to his 150-acre (61-hectare) family run farm in the rolling North Downs.
"Brexit is, as far as I can see, a huge contributing factor to that. It's created a massive loss of labour," he said.
- Fewer turkeys -
Faced with a labour shortage in the poultry sector, farmers across the country have been advertising for workers. But applications are extremely rare.
"It's not the most glamorous work in the world," said Mark Gorton, who rears turkeys in Norfolk, in the east of England.
"It's difficult work, it's farming seven days a week."
In previous years, Gorton said he would have had arrangements in place for 300 to 400 seasonal workers by the middle of December.
Like Deeley, this year he has none.
"We're six weeks away from when we start processing Christmas turkeys for the Christmas market and at the moment we haven't got any labour," said Gorton.
As a result, some farmers have been forced to produce fewer turkeys this year.
Supermarkets, where a shortage of lorry drivers has created delays in supply of some foods, leading to empty shelves, have also reduced their orders.
For Deeley, even if farmers had "10 turkeys or 20,000", the basic shortage of skilled labour would still be a problem.
The Traditional Farm-fresh Turkey Association, an industry body, has said the majority of its members have reported a five-fold increase in orders.
And the situation will inevitably hit consumers in the pocket.
"I think people will unfortunately have to see an increase in product costs," said Deeley.
- 'Unloved' -
While the poultry sector is one of the hardest hit by labour shortages ahead of Christmas, it is far from being the only one.
Christmas tree providers have warned of higher prices and shortages due to increased costs of imported firs and raw materials, as well as labour and transport.
Global supply chain hold-ups and the increased cost of container shipments could have a knock-on effect on the cost of toys.
And once toys arrive at ports, a lack of lorry drivers and warehouse staff could compound problems.
Meanwhile, the pig industry is warning about a lack of abattoir staff and butchers -- many of them also foreign workers -- spiralling production costs and falling prices.
The National Pig Association called it "the biggest crisis" in decades, and would force livestock farmers to cull their animals without them going into the food chain.
That has left fears for the availability of another festive favourite served alongside turkey roast at Christmas -- "pigs in blankets" (sausages wrapped in bacon).
To help, the government, which blames the coronavirus pandemic more than Brexit, has eased immigration rules to allow 5,500 three-month work visas for seasonal workers.
Many foreign workers went back to their home countries when the global health crisis struck and have not returned.
But farmers are concerned the visa waivers will have little effect.
"Would I leave my home, my country, my job, my security, just to come over and help out a country that said we don't want you anymore? I wouldn't do it," said Deeley.
"I see the implications now of Brexit as just huge, colossal," he explained, adding it had led to a situation where foreign workers felt "unloved".
Down on the farm, difficult months lie ahead.
"I'm going to have to persuade the people that are working for me that we're going to have to work 18-19 hours a day, instead of 16," said Deeley.