Richard North, 02/10/2021  

It really is quite instructive to see the intensity of feeling about the HGV driver issue and the determination of some to believe that Brexit is the cause of the shortage in the UK. This is despite copious evidence that driver shortages are not only a European issue but, according to the IRU, a global problem that has been building for substantially more than a decade.

One would not disagree that Brexit has had an influence on the timing and the intensity of the crisis in the UK – but then so has Covid, and the relative contributions of the two influences are hard to unravel. But this was a crisis that was going to emerge anyway, with or without Brexit or Covid, and for very much the same reasons it is affecting many countries in the world.

Those who so desperately want Brexit in the frame, though, are undoubtedly those who are insisting on a similar provenance for the crises affecting pig production, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

One of the leaders in reporting on the pig production crisis has been the BBC which tells of a Yorkshire farmer who has killed hundreds of piglets because labour shortages in "local abattoirs" have meant that adult pigs are not being killed fast enough. According to the National Pig Association (NPA), this may well not be the only case of farmers killing healthy livestock, as mature pigs have continued to "back up" on farms. And, says the BBC, the labour shortages are being blamed on Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

The location of the farm is not disclosed but the report refers to "two major processing centres in Hull" where, prior to Brexit and Covid, some 80 percent of staff came from Eastern Europe.

Nick Allen, from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), says that the workforce "in large abattoirs" would normally be 10-15 percent above average ahead of Christmas, but instead it is 15 percent down. Because centres are unable to process pigs at the usual rate, live animals were mounting up on farms and some farmers were "quietly starting to cull", he said.

Typically, Allen argues that the main barrier is labour, the shortage arising from the change in immigration policy after Brexit. "We are struggling to get butchers in particular", he says, "and it limits how fast you can run the plant".

The Guardian takes the story further, telling us that up to 120,000 pigs in UK face culling due to lack of abattoir workers. Rob Mutimer, of the National Pig Association (NPA), talks of Britain facing an "acute welfare disaster" within a matter of weeks.

And Mutimer, like the BBC, has no doubts as to the cause. He complains of a combination of post-Brexit immigration rules and an exodus of foreign workers amid constantly shifting pandemic restrictions on travel. These two factors, he says, have left the industry at crisis point.

No one seems willing, however, to estimate the relative effects of Brexit and Covid, and there is no evidence offered to suggest that Brexit was the major factor. And we know from elsewhere that the Covid lockdowns have had a significant effect on foreign labour retention in this country.

Nevertheless, if we allow that Brexit has had an influence on the industry, which claims to be short of about 15,000 workers, then this is not the whole of the story. The state and structure of the slaughtering sector is part of the story.

Here, we know that a decade before we joined the EEC, the number of slaughterhouses in England and Wales stood at 3,326. Forty years later, under the regulatory onslaught of EEC and the EU law, the number was down to less than 200.

Twenty years later, in 2020, there were recorded a mere 156 slaughterhouses, of which only 93 were licensed to slaughter pigs, killing just over nine million in the year. Of these, a mere 12 were specialist pig slaughterhouses, of which three had an average throughput of 17,567, while the remaining nine slaughtered between them nearly seven million pigs.

What we have seen, therefore, is a colossal concentration of the industry and, although some of that was inevitable, from long, direct experience in the industry, I will aver that much of this was due to the onslaught of EU regulation, and in particular, the imposition of veterinary inspection fees, which had a disproportionate and highly damaging effect on the medium-sized sector.

But what we then see, via a recent post from Pete, are two articles from the Guardian, one entitled, "Revealed: exploitation of meat plant workers rife across UK and Europe", and the other: "'The whole system is rotten': life inside Europe’s meat industry".

I had earlier written a piece about unsavoury goings-on in a Dutch meat processing plant, with indications that the government food safety system was suffering some structural problems and, of course, we have the earlier horsemeat scandal to illustrate that the European regulatory system is capable of systemic failure.

But the Guardian reports are absolutely damning, telling us that meat companies across Europe have been hiring thousands of workers through subcontractors, agencies and bogus co-operatives on inferior pay and conditions.

Workers, officials and labour experts, the paper tells us, have described how Europe's £190 billion meat industry has become a global hotspot for outsourced labour, with a floating cohort of workers, many of whom are migrants, with some earning 40-50 percent less than directly employed staff in the same factories.

There is evidence of a two-tier employment system with workers subjected to sub-standard pay and conditions to fulfil the meat industry's need for a replenishable source of low-paid, hyper-flexible workers.

This is the system which the UK has bought into, where some of the malpractices are just as prevalent here as on the continent, and which the industry, with its demands for extending the visa system, wants to perpetuate.

If, therefore, the Brexit process has at least partly responsible for breaking up this system, it has done us a favour. The pressure of EU regulation, the free movement of labour and Single Market provision, has encouraged and facilitated an unsustainable production model which relies on the exploitation, in an industry which treats its workers worse than the livestock they kill.

It is interesting, therefore, that papers such as the Guardian don't join up the dots. Less than a week after telling us that "the whole system is rotten", it is bemoaning the fact that workers have gone home to their families leaving the system in tatters, showing more concern about empty shelves in the shops. One might almost sense that it is more offended by the perceived depredations of Brexit than it is the exploitation of workers.

Of course, one has a certain sympathy with the farmers who are now in an invidious position, but only so much. There is an amount of naivety in the expectation that this unsustainable system could survive forever, and a dangerous lethargy in the NFU in not speaking out against the destruction of the UK's slaughtering system.

As far as I am concerned, the problems being experienced in this grotesque and unsustainable industry represent a Brexit benefit – insofar as Brexit is responsible. The only downside is that this dismal government is too willing to kowtow to industry in its quest to maintain the status quo, and is failing to grasp the opportunity to restructure the meat industry.

In the unlikely event that this government could get its act together, we could emerge with a more sustainable and humane industry, whence it will have been worth the disruption we are experiencing. Sadly, though, with Johnson at the helm, we are more likely to suffer the worst of all possible worlds.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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