‘It puts more pressure on the remaining staff – you have to divide the work’: a spice importer on life without EU workers

It has been, says Tasneem Alonzo with a sigh, “really stressful”. She is the joint managing director of her family’s food business, EHL Ingredients, which imports and blends spices and seasonings for food manufacturers and wholesalers, along with nuts, fruit and dried legumes. As with much of the UK’s food production industry, workers from EU countries played a vital role in her company. In her warehouse, Alonzo employed a number of Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian people. “We lost quite a few, who went back home, and trying to replace good staff has been really difficult,” she says. “It puts more pressure on the existing staff. We have to do overtime and you just have to divide the work.”

The business has managed to replace some staff, but there are still vacancies and it remains hard to fill them. She is keen to emphasise that it is not about EU workers being better than British ones – “we have some amazing British workers” – but even though she’s had to increase wages to attract people, she’s still struggling to get the right staff. Working in a spice warehouse is not an easy job, she says – staff have to understand allergens, blending spices can be messy and the smell can be strong.

Alonzo says it would make a ‘massive’ difference if she were able to recruit from the EU again.
“We get lots of applications for jobs, but people don’t turn up for interviews, or turn up but don’t actually want the job.” There has always been an element of that, she says, “but it’s got a lot worse. I think that [the sector] should be paying more, but sometimes it’s not even about paying more – people just don’t want to do those jobs, because they’re hard.”

Clare Bottle, chief executive of the UK Warehousing Association, estimates that there nearly 440,000 people work in warehousing. “We’re short of tens of thousands,” she says. While there has been a lot of publicity about a lack of HGV drivers, more than twice as many warehouse forklift truck drivers as HGV drivers were EU nationals, she adds.

Some members of the association have had to increase pay by up to 30% to attract new staff; demand at this time of year is traditionally high as retailers prepare for Black Friday and Christmas. Such factors are “especially marked this year”, says Bottle, “because there’s been an increase in e-commerce, and the work required in a warehouse, to pack goods to dispatch to a consumer’s home, is more labour-intensive than sending goods to a retail outlet. A lot of that short-term temporary labour would [previously have been done by] people who are EU nationals.”

It’s not just a lack of warehouse employees that has affected Alonzo’s business, but also the national shortage of drivers. “These are the knock-on effects,” says Alonzo. “Just this week, there was stock in the UK, but they can’t get a lorry driver to bring it from the port over to us in Manchester.” Her company used to run a reliable next-day delivery service. “We can’t do that as much now because the hauliers haven’t got enough drivers to pick up the stock. We’re a really fast-paced company and we’re used to turning things around quickly, getting the stock in quickly, getting products delivered quickly, and it’s just had an effect on all aspects of the business.”

Alonzo says it would make a “massive” difference if she were able to recruit from the EU again – “Or have people from the EU who want to apply, and make it an easy process to get a job and get in.” A temporary visa scheme would help “the whole of the UK food industry”. But she points to the low number of fuel-tanker drivers who applied for the government’s emergency visa scheme during the petrol crisis – reportedly only 27. “I don’t know if [a temporary scheme would] make a difference now, because people have not felt welcome.”

Despite the “pressure in paperwork – red tape and extra costs on products”, she says, her business is coping thanks to some loyal staff, hard work and long hours. “We’ve done it, we’re doing well.”