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Somerset cheesemaker says Brexit ‘partly’ behind staff shortage

A cheesemaking business in Somerset has said Brexit has contributed to a labour shortage at its Ilchester factory after many of its workers from European Union countries decided to leave the country.

Norseland, whose brands include Jarlsberg, Mexicana, Ilchester and Applewood, said that it was one of many food manufacturing companies and recruitment agencies in the area currently struggling to fill “literally hundreds” of vacancies.

The business, which is the UK subsidiary of Norway’s largest producer and exporter of dairy products TINE SA, employs just over 200 people with around 170 of these at its manufacturing base around six miles north of Yeovil.

Clive Richer, corporate social responsibility manager and HR director at Norseland, said that just under 80% of the factory’s staff are foreign nationals, and that it had lost about 30% of its production floor workforce over the past 12-18 months.

Mr Richer said the business had struggled to fill 25 permanent and temporary positions, and cited a study published by the government-funded Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence that estimated 1.3 million overseas workers had left the UK since late 2019.

He said: “Brexit has hit the food and drink manufacturing industry hard in Somerset and we are really feeling it at the moment.

“So many of our staff returned to their home countries when Brexit happened, and we have faced a struggle to recruit replacements because of the general exodus of EU workers across the county and the UK as a whole.

Mr Richer added: “Obviously, Covid is a factor too but Brexit has been the driving force behind the jobs shortage that we and many companies in the food and drink supply chain are experiencing.”

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Mr Richer said Brexit was also affecting a shortage of HGV drivers and was also having a knock on effect on the food and drink sector.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said this month its members were facing an “acute” shortage of staff, with some furloughed workers leaving the sector and EU nationals not returning to the UK.

Figures released by auditing giant KPMG and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) have also suggested that while demand for staff has risen by its fastest rate in 23 years, the supply of workers available to employers is contracting at its fastest rate for four years.

The study cited uncertainty caused by the pandemic and a fall in candidates from the EU as contributing factors.

Clive Richer, corporate social responsibility manager and HR director at Norseland.
Clive Richer, corporate social responsibility manager and HR director at Norseland.

Mr Richer said: “There has been a lot said about the shortage of staff for the hospitality industry in the news recently, but the struggle is real for food and drink manufacturers such as ourselves too.

“While we are maintaining our manufacturing levels at the moment and getting our products out the supermarkets and wholesales across the UK, the labour shortage in Somerset could pose a major problem if it continues in the future.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Our new points-based immigration system makes clear that employers should focus on investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment, rather than relying on labour from abroad.

“Immigration must be considered alongside investment in, and development of, the UK’s domestic labour force, rather than as an alternative to it. This is especially relevant in light of the many UK workers who face an uncertain future given the economic impacts of the pandemic.

“We’ve implemented an unprecedented package of measures to support businesses during the pandemic and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.”

Responding to the government’s comment, Mr Richer said Norseland did not rely on foreign national workers.

Mr Richer said: “We advertise to everybody locally and anybody who is looking for work we treat in exactly the same way.

“We do have a strong contingency of British workers here who are clearly happy with what they do and we continue to receive applications form all people of all nationalities, including British. So, we are not tailoring our recruitment to one nationality, we are open to all.”

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