The rules of engagement

Employers need to find ways of attracting young blood to their workforce, but must be careful on recent legislation. Nicci Piggott investigates

The food and drink industry is facing a recruitment crisis, with 120,000 new bodies needed for the sector by 2014, according to research carried out by Improve, the Sector Skills Council for Food and Drink Manufacturing.

"If we, as an industry, are going to have a chance of filling these places, we need to act now," warns Paula Widdowson, commercial director of Improve. "We are not uncommon in this, it is happening across the board and the reason is our ageing population." For the first time ever, a larger percentage of people are leaving the workforce than entering it.

The research shows that opportunities such as shorter hours, working from home, or self employment are more likely to entice employees aged 55 and over to remain in their jobs and also highlights the fact that already 19% of over-55s in the sector are in part-time placements.

"With the sector experiencing continued difficulty in recruiting younger workers, employers must make retention of older staff a priority," explains Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve. "There are 56,000 workers expected to retire from the food and drink manufacturing sector over the next eight years, but at the current levels of recruitment, there won't be enough new starters to fill the vacancies this creates. This will result in skills shortages, with not enough workers to do the jobs, and skills gaps, as the knowledge of these older, experienced workers is lost."

New employment discrimination laws mean that people can no longer be forced to retire once they reach 65. Matthews believes this will have a positive impact on all involved, with employers benefiting from the depth of knowledge older workers have from years of experience, and employees who want to carry on working having the opportunity to do so.

Employment is particularly low in areas such as meat processing, where there is a clear lack of skilled workers. "We need more technical bodies: food scientists and engineers," Widdowson says. "But the industry is going to have to work hard to make these jobs a more attractive proposition to the younger generation."

Job Centre Plus offers a host of services to employers, including advice on setting up interviews, CV vetting, and free interview facilities. It also appoints over half the vacancies in the food and drink sector.

"If employers want to capture young blood, they need to think about building relationships with schools and further education colleges.Running visits to the companies' premises or giving talks to students about the company are effective ways of promoting yourself to potential employees," Widdowson says.

It is also important to advertise vacancies in as many places as possible, using websites, job centres, local newspapers and club notice boards. "Another very successful way to capture new staff is to offer the staff you've got a reward if they recommend a friend," adds Widdowson.

However, recruitment only forms part of the challenge for employers. With a raft of legislation protecting employees, employers must be fully conversant with all requirements. One area that is proving particularly sticky is the use of migrant workers. Joanne Kay, partner at East Midlands law firm Freeth Cartwright, explains: "Many employees in the food processing sector are turning to migrant workers to fill the labour gap. Employers who take this route can fall foul of employment and immigration issues."

On 23 November, the company ran a seminar, Employing Migrant Workers: An Essential Guide for the Food Industry, to address these issues. The seminar highlighted an uptake of Polish workers in the meat sector, with meat traders stating they found "Polish workers tended to be more flexible and productive than labour from the local work force".

"The move towards using migrant workers is a growing trend," says Kay.There are two routes that employees can follow when hiring migrant labour: using an agency or employing through word-of-mouth. "Either way, it is crucial that you are strict with your pre-employment vetting procedure," warns Kay. "If you do use an agency, establish exactly what service they are offering; will they be performing any pre-employment vetting and, if so, how thorough are they?"

Kay adds that individuals can be held accountable under the Asylum and Immigration Act of 1996 for employing an illegal immigrant. "If found guilty, you could be faced with a two-year custodial sentence or a fine of up to £5,000 - and that is per employee," she states. "Also the supermarkets are keen not to be tainted and may take a dim view if a supplier is caught using illegal labour."

Kay recommends that employees ensure they understand what requisite documentation the employee needs and checks they are in possession of everything before even considering employment. "If the right documents are in place, then it can, if necessary, be used as your statutory defence."

Immigration and the police still use 'dawn raid' tactics and have wide-ranging powers that allow them to search premises, so it's important to have the right papers to hand. If you are carrying out pre-employment vetting, you must do so with all potential employees, otherwise you could be prosecuted under the Race Discrimination Act. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate on the Home Office website - - contains information for employers on what employees need to work in the UK.

All workers are entitled to the same statutory rights: national minimum wage, holiday entitlement and set working hours. "There is a misconception among some unscrupulous employers that not only can they get migrant labour cheap, but they do not give those workers the proper holiday entitlement or make them work over and above the licensed hours. Some employers have even been known to confiscate the passport of the worker to ensure their continued presence at the company."

A range of services for both employers and employees, including a literature, advice services and e-learning facilities that explain employment law, are available from ACAS.

Employers also need to account for language and cultural barriers and ensure that migrant workers are fully conversant with all health and safety procedures and that adequate changes are in place. Kay says it is important that health and safety information is available in other languages to allow for this. "There are lots of colleges that offer English lessons and it could be worth employers arranging and funding these," she says. "Quite often, the migrant workers are highly skilled in their country of origin and over-skilled to do the jobs they take on here. For this reason they often make an extremely valuable work force."

A new law, which came into force this month, means that those using an unlicensed labour provider in the farming and food processing sectors are committing a criminal offence and face penalties of up to six months' imprisonment, a £5,000 fine, or both.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) says this new law is a key weapon in the fight to end worker exploitation. GLA chief executive, Mike Wilson, comments: "It takes two to exploit labour - the provider and the user. We have introduced the GLA licensing scheme to bring providers up to the mark. It is now time to look at the other side of the relationship - the labour user. By using unlicensed labour providers, labour users become complicit in this exploitation." Defra has published guidance setting out the steps that a labour user can take to ensure a labour provider is licensed. l


To make things easier for both employees and employers alike Improve has set up the Green Card service, run by a commercial company, which provides a nationally recognised record of skills, qualifications and achievements in the UK food and drink industry.

The Green Card is made up of two parts: a record of achievement, which lists training records and qualifications online, and a passport of skills, which Improve says increases the card-holders job prospects. The card carries the name, photo and date of birth of the candidate, as well as a bar code that gives access to the online data.

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