The Corby Brexit worker squeeze: Lack of new European workers starting to take its toll

For years, the town has welcomed thousands of European workers to fill warehouse roles - but that's now changing

By Kate Cronin
Monday, 29th November 2021, 11:56 am
Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Anyone passing through industrial areas of Corby recently can't have failed to spot the glut of signs that have popped-up on fences offering work to those who need it.

For more than a decade, the economy of Corby - and to a lesser extent Kettering and Wellingborough - have been partly reliant on thousands of European staff who have moved to our area to fill the huge numbers of warehouse and logistics jobs in the area.

In fact, one in four people living in Corby is thought to have come here from Europe - about 16,000 people at the last count.

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But now, nearly two years on from Brexit and in the wake of the pandemic, businesses are starting to feel the pinch when it comes to filling jobs.

The steady stream of fresh-faced young men and women moving here from Europe is running dry.

Recruitment firms are having to find innovative new ways to sign-up staff.

The Christmas surge has, for the first time, meant most of them are having to bring in a proportion of their workers on a daily basis from other areas.

Corby has more than 1,000 manufacturing, logistics and storage businesses and 16 per cent of the town's adult working population are employed in manufacturing - more than double the national average of 6.5 per cent.

Our town is at the geographical centre of a number of areas across the Midlands that act as the below-stairs engine room of next-day delivery, of packaged supermarket food and of the easy returns processing on which so many online businesses rely.

And in turn, Corby's town's economy - its rental sector, retail, leisure, council tax and business rates receipts - are boosted by the numbers of migrants living here.

But since the Brexit vote, the number of people coming to Corby from Europe has reduced to no more than a trickle.

Some recruiters have taken to handing out leaflets or bringing drive-by advertising at the change of shifts offering higher rates of pay and better conditions than their rivals in order to fill roles in other warehouses. One established recruitment consultancy flew a plane over the town last week trying to recruit staff.

One warehouse manager who has worked in the town for many years spoke to our reporters on condition of anonymity. He said that the flow of people began to slow almost as soon as the Brexit vote was announced.

"As soon as the Brexit vote happened, European people began to get more cautious and worried about coming here because they didn't really know if they'd be able to stay," he said.

"The uncertainty over whether they'd be given settled status changed things.

"It's not really that people have gone home - they've settled here, got steady work and mortgages and moved up the ladder and they don't need warehouse work as much. I know so many who've come in at the bottom and gone on to be general managers because they worked really hard.

"But what's actually happening is that weekly influx of Europeans who wanted long hours are not coming here any more. The hoops they've got to jump through are not worth it for them. You have to have a sponsor and a job offer at more than £26,000 and there are lots of payments to make to the Government just for the right to work here.

"We know that there are warehouses in Corby now who have workers coming in from London every week and on minibuses from places like Leicester every day.

"This month before Christmas is a big peak so it's not a surprise that we need extra workers but there are more than ever coming here from other places.

"Some are being paid more than £13 an hour and yes, personally I think it's great that wages are rising but paying order pickers £28,000 a year is completely unsustainable in the long term. Ultimately the cost will be passed on to the customer at some point.

"So many firms have built their businesses here on the availability of a transient, low-cost workforce.

"We could be heading into a crisis here like you've seen in the Fens and Lincolnshire with farm workers."

But could the UK win back these workers by giving them an easier passage, like that designed to help farmers during harvest time? Our warehouse manager thinks not.

"You look at the recent rules they've tried to relax for HGV drivers to try to get some of the Slovaks and Poles and Romanians to do the jobs, they've not taken them up," he said.

"The UK has not treated these people well. If they've been treated badly and made to feel unwelcome then why would they come here?

"We acted like we were doing them a favour."

Amazon in Peterborough recently began offering new sign-ups a £3,000 golden handshake

And Gig recruitment agency is offering people in London free weekly coach transport to Corby, a free hotel with a gym and wifi, to work 40-hour weeks over four day - with a £150 bonus for people who sign up a friend.

Carl Stairs started Logistics People from his garden shed seven years ago. His firm, now based in Geddington Road, Corby, was bought by Eddie Stobart in 2018 and has more than 6,000 workers employed across the driving, warehousing, security and cleaning sectors. He was invited back to run the company as managing director after he sold it to Stobart's.

Carl said that the recruitment industry must develop in order to account for the effects of Brexit, and that his company was already making changes to the way it recruited staff.

“Whilst the recruitment of employees is challenging, we are confident that through unique approaches and by providing opportunities that look outside of the box Logistics People will remain at the forefront of recruitment by the utilisation of unique strategies to work around the shortage," he said.

"Businesses need to be offering competitive rates alongside fringe benefits that complement the work force in today's market.

"The logistics providers that we work with are coming up with new and innovative ideas that will attract labour from a flooded market and ensure that they remain employers of choice. Increased opportunities for students, flexible patterns of working and looking to non-traditional labour sources will hopefully plug the gap of the previous years labour.

"While the future will be challenging we remain confident on our ability to source the right people for the right role."

And a quick glance at some of the roles on offer in Corby show that some firms have already upped the ante when it comes to keeping their workers happy. Some offer on-site gyms, free laptop access, guaranteed hours and holidays, weekends off and overtime rates up to £18 per hour.

And while that is great news for warehouse workers - it might not be great news for the consumer who - without new higher payrates of their own - will ultimately pick up the cost at the checkout.