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‘Undervalued’ migrant workers are proving their worth during crisis, says poultry industry

Mark Gorton, joint managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, says migrant workers have been key to the resilience of the industry during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Mark Gorton

Mark Gorton, joint managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, says migrant workers have been key to the resilience of the industry during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Mark Gorton

Mark Gorton

The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the resilience of the region’s poultry businesses – and highlighted the true worth of “undervalued” migrant workers who have helped feed the nation, said sector leaders.

The pandemic has brought mixed challenges for poultry farms. While the closure of the food service sector and the collapse of wholesale markets has led to a net reduction in demand for poultry meat, retail demand for chicken has soared.

But industry leaders said the “unsung food heroes” who kept the industry moving feel alienated by the Immigration Bill introduced earlier this month, which reaffirmed a Home Office a commitment to deliver a “fairer and skills-led” system while ending the free movement of people from the EU.

The British Poultry Council said the bill undervalues the efforts of EU migrants who had been “upgraded in the public rhetoric from ‘low-skilled’ to ‘essential’ to running the country” – and urged the government to recognise food as a special case that is treated as a national security issue.

And that message was endorsed by Mark Gorton, joint managing director at Traditional Norfolk Poultry, and a member of the National Poultry Board.

The firm, based at Shropham, near Attleborough, was one of those which saw a surge in lockdown demand from supermarkets for its free-range and organic chickens.

“It has been absolutely crazy,” said Mr Gorton. “From day one of the lockdown our orders went through the roof. For the first two or three weeks we were getting orders for double the amount of product that we had available.

“The agricultural industry has not stopped. It has continued to feed the nation, and I think the poultry industry in particular has shown how quickly it can react to changes in the market place.

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“I think there will be some casualties among specialist food service businesses, but on the whole the industry has been very resilient, which is typical of poultry.

“It is perhaps a timely thing, with Brexit drawing to a close it might make people appreciate farmers more.

“We have got a big eastern European workforce. I think the government has just wised up and realised that without immigrant labour, the care homes and hospitals won’t have anyone to work in them – and we are the same. We have worked seven days a week through this crisis to feed the nation and without that immigrant workforce we wouldn’t have been able to do that. I would hope it won’t go unnoticed. If any concessions are made for the NHS then we need the same concessions too if we are to continue producing food.”

Mr Gorton said the company’s processing factory had been operating 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, with a new two-shift system introduced to help social distancing measures.

He said the pandemic has also sparked a surge of interest for the firm’s “full cycle” chicken growing contracts, which encourage arable farmers to diversify into the expanding market for welfare-friendly poultry.

“It has made people sit up and think ‘we have got to bolster our farms for the future’ – and poultry seems to be more resilient,” he said.


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