Cumbria’s leading business organisation is calling on the Government to act quickly to help the hospitality industry which cannot recruit staff.
Cumbria Chamber of Commerce says all sizes of firms across the sector are hampered in their reopening because they are struggling to recruit junior and low-skilled workers.
it wants Whitehall to make urgent changes to its immigration policy.
The chamber said tourism and hospitality businesses were not alone as companies in a number of other industries including health and leisure providers GLL and food producers and supplies Harbourside Products in Maryport have also reported unprecedented issues in staff recruitment.
In recent weeks the government’s tourism minister Nigel Huddleston MP has made it clear the Government is not considering changing its immigration policy or assessing new ways of attracting foreign workers this year.
Suzanne Caldwell, managing director of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, is urging the government to think again, make swift changes and present a new approach to help address the issues.
She said: “We are very concerned for the number of businesses, many of them stalwarts of the Cumbrian economy, that are dealing with unprecedented challenges in the labour market.
“This could hamper them at a time when a summer sales or staycation boost is essential.
“What is clear speaking to business leaders in hospitality, manufacturing and a host of other sectors is the Government needs to take a far more agile approach that it is portraying.
“The message from Whitehall is that they won’t be assessing their immigration policy this year.
“That has to change very quickly. A VAT reduction for certain service sectors such as those in hospitality also needs to be explored.
“What we’d like to see is the replacement for the Erasmus scheme to start immediately rather than in September and a fast-tracked short-term mobility visa valid from six months to two years, in a similar model to Australia which could help attract young workers.
“The Government needs to make these changes to present the right message to foreign workers and to show them that irrelevant to Brexit, they are and always will be welcome while working in the UK.”
Research from Cumbria Tourism revealed that in April 34 per cent of businesses were concerned about recruiting staff due to factors including staff moving on during the pandemic, post-Brexit immigration policy changes, current travel restrictions and many businesses hiring at the same time.
Cumbria Chamber of Commerce is involved as a Gateway in the government’s Kickstart scheme, helping smaller businesses access a slice of up £1,500 per placement from the £2 billion fund aimed at creating paid work placements for unemployed young people.
It has helped get approval for over 500 placements but the recruitment issue still remains.
John Heywood, director of Harbourside Products Ltd, in Maryport, believes the current recruitment issues are the worst he has experienced in business, with options that would have alleviated the issue previously no longer being available this time.
He is advocating a different, more open approach by the Government to foreign employees to help the situation and said: “It is very hard to recruit people, and especially women. I have never known it to be this bad.
“We have tried every way possible to recruit people but there doesn’t seem any way to get the people we need into work.
“There is no doubt that Brexit will play a huge part in the ability for companies, such as ours, to source labour going forward.
“Going back to 2000 when we had a huge uplift in sales we had to employ outside the EU in order to keep going.
“In particular we recruited quite a few members of staff from Bulgaria before it was in the EU but now we are really struggling.
“We rely on unskilled production operatives who are vital to the company but the UK workforce seem comparatively reluctant to come and work those roles.
“Some of our MPs have spoke of the UK making our own goods but you need the workforce, and the arrangement currently in place, with workers that have been here for 15 or more years having to refill out forms doesn’t make them feel welcome to stay.
“It could help us when furlough comes to an end but in the long term the government needs to look at how to get British workers as active in the labour market as possible.”
Derek Jones, partnership manager at GLL, which supplies leisure facilities in five of the six authority areas in the county, are suffering the same staffing issues as other sectors.
He is concerned the impact could lead to them running a reduced offering at a time when the company – like many others in Cumbria – need a strong summer after the last year, and feels the government need to implement “some blue sky thinking” ideas.
He said: “Leisure services and outdoor activities are being just as affected as hospitality and tourism, and that’s not surprising as there are strong connections between the two.
“Often a lot of people we have on our activities are visitors.
“We are a social enterprise organisation, so it’s not about making a profit, but if we have to increase our wage bills we’ll struggle to break even.
“It feels very much like an employees’ market and we’re having to compete with a lot of other industries from a shrinking labour pool. We always have the problem of paying for young members of staff to pass their qualifications and then they disappear, but with everything else it feels like the perfect storm of problems.
“There is also the issue of the high cost of accommodation, and the public sector should look at the plans that were drawn up for Copeland’s nuclear bid and set-up temporary summer housing for staff. Between the Government making foreign workers more accessible, and local accommodation, we’re very dependent on the authorities making changes to help us.”