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Britain’s food industry’s staff crisis

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The food industry is facing a major employee crisis.

Thousands of kebab shops and takeaways, from small villages to the high streets of big cities, all around the UK, are making extraordinary efforts to find employees, especially chefs.

The UK’s pandemic restrictions are gradually being phased out following successful vaccination rollouts across the country and reduced infection rates: pubs and restaurants’ outdoor service reopened on 12 April in England and is enjoying surging demand, indoor mixing is allowed from 17 May, and all legal limits on social contact could be removed on 21 June.

Despite unemployment rates of around 5% in the country, and the potential for about 2.2 million people, or 6.5% of all workers, to be unemployed by the end of the year, the government’s spending watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility says, across the UK’s hospitality sector, restaurants and cafes are still struggling to find the staff.

Brexit is one of the main resaons for the crisis, as Office for National Statistics figures suggest that a million people have left the country – at the end of 2020 Britain had almost a million fewer non-UK-born residents than a year earlier.

Before Brexit, EU nationals made up between 12% and 24% of the total workforce in the UK hospitality industry, according to KPMG. Many of them left the country amid successive Coronavirus lockdowns. EU nationals now have to obtain a visa in order to enter the country for work, which entails securing a job offer that meets minimum salary levels, among other requirements. The hospitality sector also lost employees to other businesses that remained open during the pandemic.

According to the industry’s representative body UK Hospitality, EU nationals employed as waiters and waitresses made up 75% of the sector’s total workforce in London at 40,000 foodservice venues across the city.   

Small businesses in particular are in danger of closing down due to a lack of staff. A shortage of talented young chefs is leading to changes in the restaurant landscape. This crisis could even impact what food is available to customers at local food shops; some restaurants and takeaways are changing their menus as they are unable to offer certain dishes that require a particular chef’s specific expertise.

More importantly, many businesses face the risk of closure if the government does not intervene according to sector representatives.

Hospitality industry struggle to find staff ahead fully reopen

Recently, UK Hospitality said there was a shortfall of about 188,000 workers, with the shortage of front-of-house staff and chefs being “particularly acute”.

Uncertainty over the future stability of the industry and Brexit were cited as being the main reasons for the shortage. Many staff have been laid off over last 14 months, as venues struggled to survive through lockdowns, despite various government support schemes.

The industry group said many overseas workers returned home last year and have not returned due to travel restrictions. UK Hospitality’s chief executive Kate Nicholls said venues were on a “cliff edge” if businesses were not able to fully reopen on 21 June, amid concerns about a third wave of coronavirus infections hitting the UK.

“It would be devastating for many of our members and catastrophic for those not able to open at all, [such as] nightclubs and music venues and for those with restricted opening, so wedding venues and indoor leisure,” Ms Nicholls said.

“If there is any delay it’s imperative to extend the business support schemes to protect the millions in the sector that are at risk.”

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