Black Christmas: turkeys, trees and toys under threat from labour shortage

Christmas turkey dinner at threat

The UK could face a “national shortage” of turkeys in the lead-up to Christmas brought on by a lack of labour following Brexit, the chair of a farming association has said.

Kate Martin, of the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association (TFTA), said that while small British farms that used local workers had been less affected, supermarket shelves were likely to be hit by a shortage of skilled European employees.

The TFTA, which represents producers of high-end, free-range turkeys, said some poultry farms had already had five times more orders this year than at the same time in 2020.

Martin told the PA Media news agency: “This year it’s looking like there is a national shortage of turkeys when we’re talking about supermarket shelves, rather than buying direct from your farm.

“It is the supermarket shelves that will be emptier on turkeys this year than they have been before, because there have been less turkeys placed on the ground, because the big processors know that they will not get them processed.”

Asked whether supermarkets would run out of turkeys before Christmas, she said: “I think everyone needs to get their orders in very quickly. We have seen an absolutely unprecedented number of orders come in. Come Christmas, if you leave ordering your turkey from your local farm supplier, you are going to be out of luck.”

On whether Brexit was to blame, Martin said: “We’re small producers, we use local labour, but for the big processors it is 100% caused by a labour shortage. This situation with turkeys is caused by the fact that European labour is no longer available to us, and they are skilled workers who have been coming to us for years.

“People are now missing a whole host of their workforce that they have been training and investing in over the last however many years, and those workers are no longer available for us to use on a seasonal basis – they will go find work on mainland Europe instead.”

Consumers have also been warned of a potential shortage of Christmas trees and higher prices as supply chain difficulties spread – and post-Brexit trading rules have been blamed.

Mark Rofe, who owns, said last week that UK growers were reporting higher demand for locally grown conifers, “especially from clients who would usually import their trees from Europe, but are keen to avoid any red tape that could increase costs or cause delays for what is of course a highly seasonal and time-sensitive business”.

Filling the space under the tree could also be trickier this year, and more expensive, as toy retailers report delays and higher prices shipping goods into the UK from manufacturers in Asia.

Last month, the British Poultry Council reported that there were nearly 7,000 vacancies across the sector, leading some chicken producers to cut their output, and leading to shortages at the restaurant chains Nando’s and KFC.

Producers have said they could opt to rear fewer birds, fearing they would not have the extra staff needed to process them in time for Christmas.

On Saturday night the UK government said it would issue temporary visas to 5,500 poultry workers and 5,000 HGV drivers to help the food and fuel industries with shortages.

UK business groups have said the plan will not address the country’s critical labour shortages, which are threatening to disrupt Christmas and leading to delays supplying fuel to some petrol stations and panic buying.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the government should have drawn up a plan to help businesses handle Brexit from the outset. “Instead, the supply of EU labour was turned off with no clear roadmap as to how this transition would be managed without disruption to services and supply chains,” she said.

Lady McGregor-Smith said the UK was not offering enough temporary visas. “Even if these short-term opportunities attract the maximum amount of people allowed under the scheme, it will not be enough to address the scale of the problem that has now developed in our supply chains,” she said. “This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”