Prisoners and pupils could be drafted in to work as supply chain crisis worsens

Cranswick Country Foods in Watton - On the production line. Picture; Matthew Usher.

Employers are turning to alternative means to try and secure workers in the food production sector. - Credit: Matthew Usher

School pupils and prison inmates could be drafted in to East Anglia's food manufacturing industry, as the labour shortage worsens.

The British Poultry Council said businesses were reporting a vacancy rate of more than 16% of the total workforce — meaning around 7,000 unfilled jobs.

A spokeswoman for the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said its members were "leaving no stone unturned" to fill the staffing deficit but, she said, what was needed varied greatly across the country.

"Production plants are scattered around the country but often they can be in quite rural areas," she said. "Their issues are the labour supply within that very localised area.

"Recruitment could be difficult even before Brexit and the pandemic.

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"It really does vary site by site, depending on what's around. Sites are engaging with local schools, careers fairs, with job centres, with prisons — anywhere they can try and get in touch with prospective employees."

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said its members were finding staffing a challenge.

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Businesses are working to bring ex-service personnel into the industry as well as working with prison inmates on day release.

Hollesley Bay prison in Suffolk. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Hollesley Bay prison in Suffolk. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The association is understood to have approached HMP Hollesley Bay about employing inmates released on temporary licence.

Its members who have employed inmates said they found them all "well behaved, hard-working, and willing to learn".

Tony Goodger, from the association, said: "We have members in Suffolk who are desperate for staff to work on the production line and as drivers."

The group spoke with the Ministry of Justice about employing more inmates in the meat processing industry as part of their rehabilitation, but a government spokesman said the discussions are still at any early stage.

A spokesman for Bernard Matthews, which has a base in Halesworth, said: “Bernard Matthews have worked with HMP Norwich for a number of years and the key focus of the programme has been to give ex-offenders a job opportunity.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Helping prisoners find jobs during their sentence and after release is a vital tool that makes it much less likely they will reoffend.  

“We will support all industries with skills shortages where possible, and are working towards bringing levels back up towards pre-pandemic levels as restrictions allow.”

The spokesman added that Release on Temporary Licence was a risk assessed temporary release programme to allow inmates to gain work experience. While on the programme prisoners earn at least minimum wage and a proportion of the money is paid into the Victims Support Fund.

But problems exist elsewhere throughout the supply chain.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “The UK faces a shortfall of 90,000 HGV drivers and it is consumers who will ultimately suffer for this.

"So far, disruption has been minimal thanks to the incredible work by retailers and their suppliers.

"Retailers are increasing pay rates, offering bonuses and introducing new driver training schemes, as well as directly supporting their suppliers in the movement of goods, but Government will need to play its part.

"We are calling on the government to rapidly increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place, provide temporary visas for EU drivers, and to make changes on how HGV driver training can be funded.”

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