Britain’s pig farmers on Friday warned of a crisis unless the government took urgent steps to ease an acute shortage of abattoir workers and butchers that has left up to 150,000 pigs backed up on farms and facing a costly cull.

Brexit and the pandemic have combined this year to leave deep labour shortages across the British economy, with a dearth of drivers disrupting fuel and supermarket supplies.

And in the food sector, a sudden exodus of eastern European workers after COVID-19 lockdowns eased has left many pig farmers fighting for survival. On Friday they urged retailers not to turn to cheaper European Union pork.

Britain recently changed tack to allow some international workers to come in for three months to drive trucks and fill gaps in the poultry sector, but opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer said the government wasn’t moving fast enough.

“The Prime Minister should be taking emergency action today but yet again he’s failed to grasp the seriousness of the crisis. If it needs legislation, then let’s recall Parliament,” he said.

Farmers warn of potential cull 

On Thursday, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said a cull of up to 150,000 pigs was “potentially a week, ten days away.”

“I do not feel anybody can preside over a welfare cull of healthy livestock. I don’t believe it has happened in the world before and it cannot happen now,” she told the BBC.

Batters said she wants an urgent meeting with Interior Minister Priti Patel and Immigration Minister Kevin Foster.

Piglets stand in their enclosure at Wicks Manor Farm in Maldon, south east England on Sept. 22, 2021. British farmers are warning that unless the government takes steps to ease deep labour shortages, there could be a cull of up to 150,000 pigs. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Brexit, COVID produce labour shortage

The weekly slaughter of pigs has dropped by 25 per cent since August after the pandemic and Britain’s post-Brexit immigration rules combined to hit an industry already struggling for workers, leading to a now acute shortage of butchers and slaughterers.

“As a result of the labour supply issues in pork processing plants, we currently have an estimated 120,000 pigs backed up on U.K. pig farms that should have gone to slaughter,” the National Pig Association (NPA) said in a letter to retailers.

“The only option for some will be to cull pigs on farm.”

The meat processing industry has long struggled to find enough workers but it has been hit by the departure of many eastern European workers who returned home due to Brexit and COVID-19.

The NPA said that despite attempts to persuade the government to ease immigration rules, it appeared to have reached an impasse.

Gas pumps still dry

Meanwhile, British ministers have for days insisted the crisis at the pumps is abating or even over, though retailers said more than 2,000 gas stations were dry and Reuters reporters across London and southern England said dozens of pumps were still closed.

Queues of often irate drivers snaked back from those gas stations that were still open in London.

“I am completely, completely fed up. Why is the country not ready for anything?” said Ata Uriakhil, a 47-year-old taxi driver from Afghanistan who was first in a line of more than 40 cars outside a closed supermarket petrol station in Richmond.

Thousands of British gas stations have run dry, including this one in Manchester, England, as motorists scrambled to fill up amid a supply disruption due to a shortage of truck drivers. (Jon Super/AP)

“When is it going to end?” Uriakhil asked. “The politicians are not capable of doing their jobs properly. The government should have been prepared for this crisis. It is just incompetence.”

Uriakhil said he had lost about 20 per cent of his normal earnings this week because he has been waiting for fuel rather than picking up customers.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said members reported on Friday that 26 per cent of pumps were dry, 27 per cent had just one fuel type in stock and 47 per cent had enough petrol and diesel.

“Independents, which total 65 per cent of the entire network, are not receiving enough deliveries of fuel compared with other sectors such as supermarkets,” Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retail Association, told Reuters.

Ministers say the world is facing a global shortage of truck drivers and that they are working to ease the crisis. They deny that the situation is a consequence of an exodus of EU workers following Britain’s departure from the bloc, and have dismissed concerns the country is heading toward a “winter of discontent” of shortages and power cuts.

Though there are shortages of truck drivers in other countries, EU members have not seen fuel shortages.

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