Worker shortages across the globe are transforming the food system, from empty store shelves to soaring price increases.
It’s happening on the vegetable aisles, across the meat industry, and on dinner tables in restaurants. And now, things have got so bad in the UK, that prisoners are being enlisted to solve the ‘recruitment crisis’ exasperated by Brexit, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
How have these worker shortages transpired, and what kind of food industry will we end up with if they continue?
Global worker shortages
A staggering four million US citizens quit their jobs this April – at the highest rate for two decades, according to the US Department Of Labour. Over June in the UK this year, staff shortages plunged to the lowest they’ve been since 1997.
The pandemic has prompted similar shortages in the food supply chain. In the US, hiking vacancies have been reported this year from truckers to poultry farms. And in Vietnam, the army has been called in to help harvest rice to help support farmers.
The Guardian questioned whether the shortages will lead to a ‘permanently tighter’ jobs market, but it also comes at a time where the plant-based industry is expected to continue its boom. The vegan meat market, for example, is expected to skyrocket to $162 billion over the next decade.
But will the shortages affect this sector too?
The hospitality industry as a whole is certainly dubbed to be in ‘crisis’. And fewer delivery workers affect supplies across the whole board.
As many businesses struggle to find employees, predictions are that it could result in better working conditions, however.
As the spotlight was shone on long hours and unfair pay, restaurants reacted. For example, McDonald’s has increased wages for more than 35,000 workers in the US.
And at Amazon, joining bonuses of up to £1,000 could be on the cards for UK workers, The Guardian reports.
There are various estimations around the root of this labor deficiency, from COVID-19 causing personal revaluations about career choices to fingers pointed at huge corporations over mistreatment allegations.
Meat industry at ‘tipping point’
In meatpacking plants and factories, labor shortages can be attributed to the number of COVID-19 deaths and allegations of poor working conditions. For example, a worker at meat giant Cargill was allegedly told not to wear a mask at work last year.
As a result, policymakers were urged to give meatpacking staff ‘priority access’ to the vaccine.
Senior figures in the industry say many staff, butchers for example, aren’t easily replaceable.
More recently, Americans were urged to cut their meat intake in order to better protect disadvantaged workers. Meatpacking laborers typically work ten to 14-hour shifts and are ‘severely underpaid’, according to a member of World Animal Protection US. They’re also three times more likely to suffer strain injuries.
‘Work in the meat industry is simply not appealing to British workers’, says Nan Jones, of the British Meat Processors Association.
Moreover, Jones thinks the industry will soon reach ‘tipping point’ unless the UK government adds butchers to the Shortage Occupation List, allowing for overseas workers to temporarily fill vacancies.
Furthermore, gaps in the industry have been worsened by Brexit. Many European workers moved home over lockdown restrictions in the UK and haven’t looked back. This has also prompted predictions of slaughter reductions in the UK, affirmed by further challenges presented by import changes following Brexit.
Prisoners plugging the problem
To help solve the issue, the UK government is reportedly in talks with meat industry leaders to use prisoners to fill job vacancies.
Currently, there are around 14,000 vacancies, the BBC reports. One source told the outlet the government is in contact with prison services in hopes of securing positions for inmates, as well as those about to leave prison.
The British Meat Processors Association told the outlet its members are ‘trying absolutely everything’ to help recruit staff.
Food price increases
But fears are that the reduced worker figures will prompt hiking food prices. Tomatoes, for example, have almost doubled in price over the past year, according to The Guardian.
Co-op’s Chief Executive Steve Murrells told the organization the staff shortages were the worst he’d ever seen.
Empty shelves in supermarkets are already a disruption, and further reports this week indicate prices have risen by 1.3 percent this month already.
As a solution to supply chain issues, Labour MPs called on the UK government to ease visa rules to provide more drivers.
Other organizations, including the trade union Unite, are calling for pay increases. However, last month the government rejected temporary visa calls.
Transformed food system
Most of us have reconsidered our life choices over the course of the pandemic. This is seen in our food habits as well as our career choices. And along the way, it’s played a part in boosting the sales of plant-based foods.
The long-term effects of the dents in the food supply chain following both COVID-19, and Brexit for UK consumers are unclear.
But for the meat industry, in particular, many argue the dents in production bode well for the vegan movement.