The year 2021, the first since the UK operated independently outside the European Union, saw a torrent of complaints about labour shortages from across the economic spectrum.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact, sectors which relied on the freedom of movement of EU workers before Brexit appear to have suffered the most.
A combination of COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, and Brexit coming into effect, has seen many Europeans return to their home countries — and not return.
Under the UK’s new immigration rules EU nationals no longer have preferential treatment; instead, a new points-based system is designed to attract skilled workers.
Over the year Euronews has reported on several areas of the UK economy which have suffered from acute labour shortages. Here we give an assessment of the latest state of play.
Hospitality: ‘Absolutely traumatic’ year
The Rubens at the Palace is a five-star hotel overlooking the Queen’s official residence at Buckingham Palace. Yet like many hotels, bars and restaurants, it has struggled to find staff.
Customers seeking lunch have been turned away as a lack of workers has sometimes forced the hotel restaurant to close.
General manager Malcolm Hendry describes the combination of Brexit and COVID as the “biggest storm” he’s known in a career of over 30 years.
“Not being able to recruit from the whole of Europe when we’ve been used to doing that for many years previously is really at the root of where the challenge exists,” he told Euronews.
“It would certainly be my vote that we go back to being able to recruit across open markets, being able to bring back and bring in new people, new faces into our industry to really allow myself and so many industry colleagues to get back to having staff and team numbers to the same levels as pre-COVID.”
Asma Khan, owner of the Darjeeling Express restaurant in central London, says the past year has been “absolutely traumatic”, with acute staff shortages in the industry affecting supplies.
“It has been really hard with deliveries, there is no guarantee anything will come,” she told Euronews. “We’re just living with this constant insecurity. There are days when you don’t get milk, you don’t get chicken — at all. I’m a restaurant! You don’t know what to start doing because it just doesn’t turn up.”
Khan describes European workers as the “backbone” of the hospitality industry in London and accuses the government of “zero thinking” over how they would be replaced.
Before the pandemic, a quarter of workers in hospitality and tourism in the UK were non-British nationals, and almost half of those were from EU countries — according to a pan-industry report published in August. Their numbers had swollen by over 60% in the five years before the Brexit vote.
The latest UK official figures put the number of hospitality sector vacancies at 165,000 in the three-month period from September to November. A leading industry survey estimates it to be as high as 188,000.
Horticulture: ‘Biggest issue is staff’
British agriculture was particularly reliant on the freedom of movement of EU workers before Brexit.
Almost all of 70,000 seasonal workers in fruit picking and vegetable harvesting were from eastern Europe in 2017, according to evidence by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to parliament. The following year, a report by the Migration Advisory Committee said 99% of seasonal agricultural workers were from EU countries.
Now, many have gone home. Kevin Haynes, a farm manager in northern England, told Euronews in March that the bulk of his daffodil crop was going unpicked.
“The biggest issue is staff,” he said. “We would have had 100-150 people today picking — and it is down to, what, 25 now, because they’re just not coming over.”
“Restricting free movement has had a devastating impact, but not just on horticulture or agriculture — on pretty much every sector where people from abroad,” vegetable farmer Julian Marks told Euronews in October.
In response to continued industry pressure, the government announced in December that its seasonal workers scheme, allowing in migrants temporarily to work on farms, would be extended to cover “ornamentals” — including daffodils — in a move welcomed by the industry.
In a further announcement on Christmas Eve, it said the seasonal workers scheme would be extended for three years, with 30,000 visas available in 2022 and the door open for a further 10,000 if necessary. However, it added the number of visas would “begin to taper down from 2023”.
Previously, the government had rejected calls to increase the number of temporary visas beyond 30,000. Some growers have reportedly cut planting plans for 2022 by more than a third.
Other initiatives include a national campaign to encourage more UK residents to “pick for Britain”. But an NFU survey suggests it is hard to recruit from the domestic workforce.
“UK workers simply do not see this line of work as attractive due to the nature of the work which is perceived to be rural-based, outdoors and involve physical work at unsociable hours,” it said.
“Government has tried to paper over the cracks with short-term fixes, but if we want to avoid this crisis continuing, long-term solutions are urgently needed,” NFU President Minette Batters said in mid-December.
Meat and dairy: ‘Pig sector in meltdown’
The labour shortage crisis in the UK pig industry saw a backlog of animals growing fat on farms due to a lack of drivers and abattoir workers. Many have had to be culled.
“There are so many pigs backed up on the farm and there’s nowhere else to put them,” Gloucestershire farmer Sophie Hope told Euronews in October.
The same month, the government announced that up to 800 more temporary visas would be authorised for foreign butchers, allowing them to work in the UK for six months. But a Home Office minister told a parliamentary committee in December that “less than 100” had applied.
“The UK pig sector is still in meltdown as worker shortages continue to impact our ability to process the number of pigs we already have on farms. The entire food supply chain and government must pull together and resolve the backlog now or we will have no independent pig producers left” said Dr Zoe Davies, Chief Executive of the National Pig Association.
The autumn also saw fears that there could be a shortage of turkeys at the traditional Christmas dinner table, which did not materialise. The government announced up to 5,500 temporary visas for poultry workers, adding in December that a “couple of thousand” had been made available.
Recruitment has also been becoming increasingly difficult in the dairy industry. A report by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) said 63% of farmers had experienced problems over the past five years, up from 51% in 2016 and 40% in 2014.
Lorry drivers: ‘Lacklustre proposals won’t work’
A supply chain logjam from the late summer saw supermarket shelves go unstocked and petrol stations run dry. The reason was a shortage of delivery drivers — a problem shared by some other European countries but particularly acute in the UK, with Brexit one of several contributing factors.
The government said it would grant more temporary visas for overseas lorry drivers. Up to 5,000 would be allowed in from abroad, and be able to stay until the end of February. But the haulage industry has estimated the shortage of truckers at up to 100,000.
The transport minister admitted in October that only a handful of visa offers had been taken up, a number reported only to have risen to a couple of hundred two months later.
The industry has been scathing. “Lacklustre and ill-conceived proposals such as a three-month visa will not work,” the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said. The Confederation of British Industry described the visas as “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.
European industry bodies say many drivers have found good pay and working conditions on the continent, and the UK offer is not attractive enough.
On December 24 the government announced that it was adding care staff to the Shortage Occupation List, opening up the sector to allow in workers from overseas on 12-month visas.
“This is excellent news but why wasn’t this done sooner and back in the summer when we first asked,” tweeted Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group, citing a staffing crisis.
Since Brexit, social care workers from EU countries are no longer automatically eligible to work in the UK and have to apply for visas.
The move followed a recommendation from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose December report said “recruitment and retention of workers has become increasingly difficult for the sector”.
Boris Johnson’s government has consistently cited the pandemic and not Brexit in relation to labour shortages. But MAC stated that “with over 50% of EEA care workers stating that they came to the UK for employment, the ending of free movement and the absence of a work route for care workers is likely to contribute to the recruitment problems faced by the sector”.
However, it also noted that many workforce problems pre-dated Brexit and that the sector was more reliant on workers from outside the EU.
Industry and government at loggerheads
The exodus of European workers is evident in the latest official figures. According to the ONS, 94,000 more EU nationals are estimated to have left the UK in 2020 than to have arrived — up by almost 40% compared to 2019.
The government accuses various sectors of the economy of an over-reliance of cheap EU labour in the past. It argues that it has fulfilled its role in helping industries as far as possible, saying they must do more to attract domestic workers.
The Brexit transition, it adds, was never going to be straightforward, and in due course the benefits will be felt by all.
An editorial in The Grocer trade magazine in December criticises the government’s schemes as “flawed”, but argues that industries should seek solutions other than immigration.
“Pragmatism alone tells you this government, elected on a strict immigration manifesto, is not going to budge (much). Banging the drum on foreign workers as the only way to solve the labour shortages is a hiding to nothing,” it says.
“Many sectors can, and arguably must, come together to solve the issues without government support.”