Richard North, 29/08/2021  

As the Afghan evacuation drama at Kabul airport reaches its climax, attention is shifting to some of the land border crossing points where, if possible, conditions are worse than at the airport.

With this and other developments in the region, therefore, it is very hard to focus on other events but, inevitably, life goes on and other issues clamour for attention. Not least of these is the tedious, small-minded whingeing of the food and logistics trade associations about the shortage of labour in their sectors.

To this, I fear, I must devote some attention, especially so when we have seen the likes of the Telegraph run the headline: "Let European workers fill half a million vacancies, say farmers and food producers", with other newspapers conveying much the same message.

This comes from a report commissioned by a corporate conglomerate represented by the likes of the British Poultry Council, the NFU, the Food and Drink Federation, the Road Haulage Association and others, including the National Pig Association, and UK Hospitality, representing the catering and hotel sector.

Typical of the corporate mentality, when presented with a problem, they go to another corporate, this time the accounting and consultancy giant, Grant Thornton UK LLP. Predictably, they have produced a jargon-filled, leaden dirge for their clients, lacking in breadth and imagination, which comes up with the classic nostrum for lazy corporates – hire more immigrant cheap labour.

One might have thought that some of the people behind the report might have actually learnt something from the tendency to import cheap labour to overcome temporary problems.

This was the thinking behind bringing the Windrush generation to overcome shortages in manpower after the war, and the import of thousands of semi-literate Kashmiris to staff Lancashire and Yorkshire mills to stave off competition from low-cost developing countries.

Not only did this not solve the inherent inefficiencies in British commerce and industry, it created social stresses and dumped the social costs on society at large which, if take as a whole, have probably cost more than any marginal, short-term financial gain that industry enjoyed.

And here we go again, with the sectors involved finding that the staff shortages they are experiencing lie mainly in the low-pay, low-skill employment areas.

For instance, a survey of corporate members showed that roles requiring no qualifications or experience accounted for 67 percent of vacancies on average across all responses, followed by "low skilled", accounting for 22 percent of vacancies on average.

Vacancies requiring no qualifications or experience were most prevalent in the "processing" roles, where they account for 50 percent of vacancies on average, whereas for operational roles they accounted for 21 percent of vacancies, with 55 percent requiring "low skills". For distributional roles, on average 69 percent of vacancies were "low skilled".

Thus complained many of the respondents, the lack of suitable applicants was resulting in local bidding war for entry level operatives into the food industry. These includes roles such as machine operators, line leaders, general operators, packers and pickers. Many of the respondents found that these roles were taking longer to fill and once secured difficult to retain.

Interestingly, the authors of the report did acknowledge that many of the roles, typically labelled as low-skilled, were fundamental to the overall success of the employing operations. And what particularly caught my attention was that they cited the example of kitchen porters.

This is an area in which I have a great deal of experience, inspecting catering operations and listening to managers complain about their inability to hire reliable staff. Chefs were two-a-penny, but a good porter was worth his weight in gold.

The thing is, this wasn't just about money. The job in the main is about cleaning and, in this class-ridden society of ours, cleaners are amongst the lowest status jobs you can imagine. Even upping the wages very often would not bring in the recruits for what is, actually, a difficult and quite challenging job.

I had this problem with a catering group in London, where we installed a cook-chill kitchen in the west of London, to service our central London restaurants feeding clients and staff. The operation produced 5,000 stainless steel, bulk meal containers each week, delivered to the satellite kitchens, in which the prepared foods were reheated for service.

With use, the containers got quite heavily soiled with baked-on food residues, each tin having to be scrubbed manually with abrasive pads to clean off the residues. We tried pan-washing machines but they didn't touch the baked-on dirt. We thus ended up employing four extra porters, on a rota, to keep up with the work.

It was not only the low status of the work that made it near impossible to staff the posts. The sheer boredom of the meant we had serious retention problems. And the lack of staff threatened the viability of the whole operation.

Very quickly, I hit on the idea of using an industrial-grade ultrasonic tank, originally designed for degreasing automotive parts in car manufacturing. It took an amount of experimentation to get the thing working but, when it did, it was the nearest thing to magic I've seen. A thirty-second dip was enough to restore the tins to an as-new, scratch free state.

As a result, for a capital cost of about half the annual wage of one porter, I was able to integrate the work into the general site cleaning effort, with just one extra member of staff. But I did more than that. I redesignated the kitchen porters as "hygiene technicians", gave them monogrammed overalls, and high-tech safety gear. Soon we had enough capacity to take in problematical items from our satellite kitchen.

The lesson, of course, is one which much of industry has already learnt – that you can overcome labour shortages with capital investment, increasing productivity and job status. I did the same trick with kitchen deep cleaning, equipping a team with high-tech equipment which enabled four men to do the job of ten in half the time.

I even used high-pressure air tools such as needle guns, more often used for descaling ships' hulls, to strip the accumulated carbon from commercial ranges. But the ultimate success came when we sought to recruit new staff, and had chefs applying for the jobs. Status was not a problem for my "dirt-busters".

Obviously, this is only one small part of the problem in one sector, but it illustrates a more creative approach to a general problem. Elsewhere, we've seen problems with turkey processors and slaughterhouses, for which innovative solutions exist. These lie outside the scope of this piece, but I may return to the subject.

Overall, it is fair to say that the reliance on the quick-fix of cheap imported labour is not a solution. It is part of the problem, hampering the development of innovative solutions while creating manifold social and employment stresses.

For good reasons or bad, ministers seem to be resisting the siren calls, calling for firms to invest in UK-based workers. It needs more than that, but this is a start. The government should not be panicked into giving way to corporate sloth.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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