The key role played by migrant labour in the Scottish red meat chain is highlighted in a Brexit briefing paper published by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) today (Tuesday June 20th 2017).
The Scottish red meat industry generates an annual output of around £2.4 billion and creates employment for more than 30,000 people, of which non-UK labour plays an important part.
“Where non-UK labour is of fundamental importance to the red meat supply chain is in the slaughter and processing sector. Not only is non-UK labour important on the factory floor but it is also key in respect of veterinary inspection,” said Stuart Ashworth, QMS Head of Economics Services.
“Without access to skilled domestic or migrant labour the ability of the Scottish red meat sector to contribute to the growth targets set by the Scotland Food and Drink Partnership in its Ambition 2030 strategy published in spring 2017 will be compromised.”
There are also implications for the provision of labour on Scottish pig farms, where migrant labour makes a “significant contribution” to the farm workforce, states the paper. Indeed, the majority of specialist pig producers in Scotland employ some non-UK, EU staff. A survey of its members by the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) showed a significant dependence on migrant labour. Non-UK labour has been an important part of the meat processing sector workforce for several years and a number of non-UK employees have progressed to supervisory and management roles.
The survey shows 52% of the unskilled workforce, 44% of the skilled workforce and 16% of supervisory and management staff are non-UK nationals. In total, just over 1500 employees are non-UK nationals.
The QMS briefing paper also highlights the importance of non-UK nationals in the statutory food safety inspections and monitoring carried out in Scottish abattoirs. Food Standards Scotland reports that around 98% of their official veterinarians are non-UK nationals.
Looking at the reasons for the reliance of the processing sector on non-UK labour, one factor looks likely to be the slowly falling unemployment rate across Scotland, which for Feb-Apr 2017 stood at 4.0% down from 4.8% over the whole of 2016 and 5.8% in 2015.
“Additionally, many meat processing businesses are located in areas with unemployment levels below the national average, for example Aberdeenshire, Moray, Dumfries and Galloway, Perth and Kinross, Angus and Stirling which all have unemployment rates estimated to be below the Scottish average,” observed Mr Ashworth.
“Abattoirs in these regions would account for some 70% of the Scottish cattle and pig throughput and 90% of the Scottish sheep throughput. “
A further concern for the meat processing sector is that of labour turnover. “The uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote has led to a higher rate of turnover among migrant labour than was previously the case and also some reduction in numbers considering employment in Scotland.
“The sector therefore has two concerns in respect of non-UK labour, one being current established employees leaving and the second a reduction those willing to come to the UK,” said Mr Ashworth.
Typically labour turnover in the meat processing sector is reported at 20% or more per year with the meat hygiene inspection service reporting similar levels.
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