Mid September. Reports of a fuel shortage start to circulate, spiralling on social and in the mainstream media as the hashtag #petrolpanic picks up.
What was noticeable about this particular crack in the supply chain was that reports soon started to focus on the real shortage at hand: not petrol, but people. Fuelled by Brexit and complicated paperwork at borders, compared to the free movement available in the rest of Europe, lorry drivers are staying away – and without them, supply chains are hampered.
What’s happening with drivers is happening elsewhere. Hospitality, meat processing, fruit pickers, and packhouse workers; these jobs were traditionally held by European workers, who temporarily put up with long shifts and low pay. Brexit, compounded by Covid when workers left to be with their families, has led to a vacuum, and exposed the reality that there is no one left to fill these positions.
For the three months to the end of July 2021, the UK registered over a million job vacancies, with well over half of these unfilled posts in farming, food production, and distribution, as well as retail and hospitality, according to an August report commissioned by the NFU.
Brexit and invisible workers
Wages have spiked in response to the shortages, but it’s not just about pay. According to a recent survey by driver recruitment agency, Pertemps Driving Division, nine out of 10 drivers feel undervalued and believe they do not get enough respect for the job they do.
As managing director at organic pork supplier Helen Browning’s Organics, Vicky McNicholas, told Wicked Leeks recently: ““For an awful lot of people, it’s not about the money they earn, it’s about the conditions and the values of the company they work in.”
Others point to a “cocktail” of effects behind shortages, with some specific to sectors. Butchery manager at organic veg box company Riverford, Matt Flynn, says: “The skilled butcher trade in the UK was struggling long before Covid and Brexit, due to an aging workforce and struggles to recruit younger people into the trade.”
But Flynn is also clear about the effect of the referendum. “In 2019, the nationwide average of EU workers in meat processing companies was around 70 per cent, of which roughly 40 per cent were skilled butchers and slaughter line workers. With many EU workers returning home after Brexit, this has left a hole in the industry that is very hard to fill,” he says.
Why won’t Brits stand up and fill these critical jobs? That’s the inevitable question that has started to be asked, as companies have been forced to start a bidding war for those few who are left.
The issue is a culturally engrained perception of these jobs as low value, believes Natasha Soares, project lead at a network of ethical retailers, Better Food Traders. “All those who pick it, pack it into bags or boxes, break down orders, reform orders and then deliver it – they are invisible and ignored,” she says. “Most are seen as not even necessary. Once you work inside, you know they’re crucial linchpins. The haulier crisis has exposed it for what it is.”
It’s a view echoed by director of the Food Ethics Council, Dan Crossley, who says it’s not just farmworkers but producers who are struggling under the current system of low prices to farmers, low wages, and low morale. “They have crazy lifestyles and hours, they can rarely take holiday,” he says. “There is a broader point here, it’s not just farmers, it’s that people aren’t valued properly. You’d think we would learn from the pandemic.”
What needs to be done?
While short-term salary hikes are not the only answer, there’s no doubt that these are some of the lowest paid jobs in the food chain, in a country with a high cost of living.
“The price of food doesn’t cover the cost of producing it, if those jobs are fairly paid,” says Soares. “We outsourced to countries where the cost of living is way lower. The cost of living here is too high, not in food but in accommodation. A decrease in housing prices needs to go alongside a rise in food prices.
“Shelter has become a commodity because land and property is seen as an investment not a basic right,” she adds.
Simply paying more in wages also has a knock-on effect in higher food prices – more realistic, perhaps, but also more unaffordable to large parts of the population. As a result, some see bigger solutions in things like a Universal Basic Income (where the state pays a low basic income to all citizens to shore up equality and living standards).
As Crossley puts it: “We either have a cheap food system where people and planet are exploited. Or we pay the true cost of food and pay workers properly. The knock-on effect of that is some food prices are likely to go up.
“It’s not about keeping food process artificially low. We need a functioning safety net, a living wage and security of employment,” says Crossley, who says he’s a “fan” of the Basic Income concept.
“I think we need to give people a platform to participate,” he says. “Rather than the consumer mindset where you can’t take part in the food system unless you have a big wallet.”
Machines versus man
There are other forces at play, such as the move towards mechanisation and robotics in supply chains and on farms. Presented as a solution to short-term shortages, in the long-term this reduces the number and value of human jobs even further.
“Dehumanising a commodity supply chain, and treating it like car parts, is the completely wrong way of looking at food,” says Peter Grieg, co-founder of the online meat retailer, Pipers Farm. “Food should be nourishing for us; food production should be nourishing for society, and it should be nourishing for rural communities.
“For too long now, we’ve been taking humans out of the food and farming system and replacing them with an industrialised, faceless supply chain that views food as a commodity.”
Both Grieg and Soares believe that fixing the current crisis simply by removing the need for workers is avoiding the problem at best, but at worst takes us further down a route of industrial farming. “The situation we find ourselves in only goes as far as highlighting how dysfunctional the industrialised food system has become,” says Grieg.
“A local (UK farmer-led) food chain has the potential to sustain entire rural communities. It not only contributes directly to local economies, but to the social fabric of our communities where families will be involved in local institutions and enterprises, schools, and more. It is a societal good and should be valued as such.”
It’s a holistic recognition of what food is, the lives and livelihoods it sustains, and the wildlife and nature it can co-exist alongside. “The counter movement is what we’re doing, what the LWA [Landworkers’ Alliance]is doing, and the organic sector: trying to foreground people and relationships,” adds Soares. “It’s embracing limits and knowing progress doesn’t always mean growth.”
Is this alternative, people-first system seeing less of an issue than mainstream supply chains currently? Soares says her network has been protected, and where there have been delays it’s where national haulage networks are being used.
“I think the relationships are really key to the resilience of our networks. In our supply chains, farmers know they have a reliable market and work hard to reach it. It’s a different kind of relationship.”
Time for an overhaul
A positive that might come out of this whole shortage is that workers begin to realise their own worth and start to ask for better conditions and pay. But until the system changes around them, whether through how we value supply chain jobs, or social changes that allow food to be sold at its true cost, it seems they are most likely to prove their value by simply not being there.
“I would say we need more localised food systems,” says Crossley. “[By] sourcing closer to home it’s more likely you will develop connections with the people behind your food. Rather than at the moment where the people behind the food system are hidden and deliver food to us. “We need to see that these people aren’t just links in the chain.”
This article was originally published in the autumn-winter print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.