Like lambs to slaughter: How Brexit could crush Welsh abattoirs

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Pembrokeshire, Wales – With nine weeks to go until Brexit, Welsh abattoirs, which enjoy access to the EU marketplace and are heavily reliant on European vets and unskilled workers from the continent, face an uncertain future.

Abattoirs in Wales contribute a significant $602m to the national economy.

Currently, all vets working in abattoirs in Wales are not British and under British law, every abattoir must have one.

They play an essential role in the industry, ensuring the prevention and control of food-borne zoonoses – infectious diseases that can be naturally transmitted between animals.

In addition, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) estimates that 80 percent of Welsh abattoir labourers – who would be deemed as “unskilled” – are non-British European Union nationals.                                          

“Labour is going to be a major issue for us after Brexit,” Justin Scale, the manager of Capestone Organic, a turkey farm and abattoir in the small coastal town of Milford Haven, told Al Jazeera.

Wales, like England, voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, while most people in Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the bloc.

Scale employs 300 people. Sixty percent of his workforce are non-British EU nationals.

Unless we see the government stepping in to support small abattoir farmers, we will inevitably see a continued reduction in their numbers after Brexit.

Jason Aldiss, managing director of Eville & Jones

This figure swells in the lead up to Christmas when he takes on several hundred more seasonal employees – typically from Romania and Bulgaria – to cope with heightened demand.

“We lost an initial group of workers around the Brexit [referendum] time, [they] told us that it was time for them to go,” Scale said.

“We have lost a lot of previous Christmas employees from EU states and we are expecting to lose more longer-term staff over the next few weeks.

“I know I can’t find that pool of labour and skills on our doorstep.”

He said the job “just isn’t appealing” to young locals.                                                                                        

Staffing shortages are expected to worsen in the run-up to Brexit.

Scale said some of his workers took to countries such as Denmark and Germany because a weaker pound meant their salaries were worth less back at home.

Along with currency concerns, workers are apprehensive about relocating to Wales because there is no guarantee they would be allowed to settle in the country after the EU divorce.

“We get people coming into our HR office and asking about their future here and our HR just doesn’t know the answers,” Scale said, with a shake of his head.

Welsh lamb is highly-prized and currently 90 percent of exports go to other European Union countries [Courtesy: Eville & Jones]

According to the proposed biggest shake-up of UK immigration policy for 40 years, a minimum salary of £30,000 ($39.294) will be required for “skilled migrants” entering the UK post-Brexit.

While abattoir vets earn a stable income from their work, others’ income is far from the threshold; the future of “unskilled” abattoir workers remains uncertain.

Juan Chulian, 32, moved to Wales six years ago to work as an abattoir vet, attracted by the opportunity of better-paid work than he could find in his native Andalucia.

He now works as deputy area veterinary manager for the South of Wales for Eville & Jones, the leading trainer and provider of abattoir vets in the country.

Chulian says uncertainty around workers’ rights, post-Brexit, has led to fewer abattoir vets taking up work in Wales.

“The main problem now, if you compare it to the background when I came to settle here in 2012, is that people are only passing through, they don’t want to risk moving somewhere where they may not be able to stay,” he told Al Jazeera.

Jason Aldiss, the managing director of Eville & Jones, said that since Brexit was announced, half of the abattoir veterinarians he had trained have left Wales.

In addition to workforce concerns, it is estimated that Welsh farmers make £200m ($261,4m) from EU meat sales, with 90 percent of Welsh lamb and beef being exported to EU states.

Higher costs and tighter regulations have already hit profits, with more than a third of British abattoirs having closed in the last decade.

Juan Chulian, a veterinary manager in South Wales, says European workers are now avoiding the Welsh abattoir industry over concerns they will not be able to stay after Brexit [Joe Wallen/Al Jazeera]

According to Hybu Cig Cymru, or Meat Promotion Wales (HCC), in the “best case scenario” where the UK signs a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU, prices of Welsh meat would still rise by five percent.

But if no trade deal is signed between the EU and UK, Welsh abattoirs would face an eight percent increase in initial export costs, as well as the World Trade Organization’s tariff – tipped to be as high as 60 percent.

This would lead to a significant drop in EU demand and a subsequent overcapacity in the domestic meat market, driving down prices and further slashing profit margins.

The anticipated increase in import prices is already having an impact.

At Capestone, Scale is reeling from the news that a major French buyer, to whom he has sold poultry for 18 years, will look elsewhere after Brexit.

Like other Welsh abattoir owners, he will also lose his share of the 250 million ($326.7m) of EU funding currently provided through the Common Agricultural Policy scheme.

“Unless we see the government stepping in to support small abattoir farmers, we will inevitably see a continued reduction in their numbers after Brexit,” said Aldiss, who runs the company providing vets.

Out of the 80 abattoir vets practising in Wales, every single one is currently a non-British EU national [Courtesy: Eville & Jones]

Welsh politicians are trying to drum home the message that the industry’s survival is seriously at risk.

Stephen Crabb is the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire and Capestone Organic falls under his constituency.

Crabb has explained how Brexit will likely deprive the abattoir industry of its workforce, in both the Brexit Select committee and House of Commons.

Yet the government has not responded to his warnings by, for instance, safeguarding abattoir owners’ employees or their exports.

With apparently weak political will to help abattoirs, it is no surprise many fear for their future.

“In terms of recruitment next year is a big worry,” said Scale, “at the moment I don’t know how we’ll do it.”

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