From farm, to factory, to fork: how do we ensure good food and good work through technology?

8 December 2022

The use of technologies in the food manufacturing and farming sector is hardly new.

The modern dairy processor is highly automated, and machines already do much of the work in the grain and drinks industry. Poultry and pig meat processing also lend themselves to automation given their relatively standard size. Another reason often identified for tech adoption is the impact on health and safety of workers, especially as carcass handling and breakdown is now mechanised in many organisations.

We love to think of the UK and Irish food sector in terms of green fields and farmers, but in both the UK and Ireland food manufacturing often resembles high-tech labs more akin to the pharmaceutical sector than the often-quoted farm to fork supply chain.

In both the UK and Ireland, the food and drink industry generally relies on a low-skilled and low-paid workforce often in the form of European migrant labour. In the UK, Brexit has exacerbated labour shortages, while in Ireland a spate of recent headlines about unfair treatment, poor housing conditions and negligible worker rights have damaged the image of the food and drink industry as an ethical employer. Across both sides of the Irish Sea, the food manufacturing sector is now experiencing the “worst skill crisis of our lifetime” with serious challenges for labour availability.

Automation, robotics and digital technologies have been held up as the panacea, offering labour saving solutions that have the potential to create better work by automating dirty, dangerous and dull tasks. However, their use has sparked an intense debate on prospects for good work in food and drink manufacturing. In our research, we have been keen to understand if technology can offer positive solutions to addressing the skills and labour gap in an increasingly deskilled and automated sector.

Can HR help ensure new technologies lead to good jobs?

In our Digit-funded project, we are investigating the experiences and needs of food manufacturing companies in relation to the adoption of the latest wave of automation, robotics and digital technologies. In particular, we are exploring the role of HR managers, the HR function, and HR practices, in promoting good work.

Technology has been hailed as a way to improve quality of food produce and as a labour-saving device offering “unprecedented opportunities” for manufacturing organisations.  However, the adoption of digital technologies is never automatic as it is delimited by socio-organisational and wider political forces that reflect not only the relative cost but also the relative power of organisations and workers.

While new technologies offer a potential solution to labour and skill shortages, and other pressures linked to sustainability targets, they also raise new challenges. If these technologies are introduced primarily to be labour saving, with no consideration of the type of work they leave behind, there is a danger that they could intensify work, and transform work organisation in ways that either replace workers, deskill them, or degrade their job quality. Consequently, this presents a longer-term challenge for attracting the future food and drink manufacturing workforce.

At the same time, to address the skills and labour supply crisis in food manufacturing there is a need to invest in people.

This must be good news for HR managers but too often the human resource implications of automation are neglected or downplayed in debates over the potential benefits of technology.

Recent calls have been made for HR to play a more central role in ensuring fair and ethical outcomes from the use of digital technologies particularly in relation to job quality. Our research to date has shown that greater insights are required into how exactly the adoption of digital technology can lead to good work.

Debates on the future of work often lead to utopian or dystopian prophesies but the reality poses  empirical questions: will tech adoption lead to changes in work organisation? If so, will it provide opportunities for job enhancement or job degradation? Will workers be deskilled, reskilled or upskilled?  The perspective of organisations who have implemented or are undergoing technological change are therefore needed to address these questions.

We want to understand current trends and future predictions on the impact of automation on human resource management and how issues, such as skills development, can be tackled moving forwards. This knowledge is pivotal in guiding organisations, supervisors, policymakers and HR professionals to ensure that good work is promoted.

The project team is currently conducting interviews with employees, employers, and key stakeholders to gain an in-depth understanding of challenges, opportunities, and experiences with this latest wave of technologies. A report is planned in collaboration with the Institute for the Future of Work for organisations and policy-makers, with the project results in 2024.

While technology adoption is being driven by the big challenges facing the industry (safety, sustainability and labour/skill shortages), automation and digitisation bring their own challenges, particularly when thinking about good work. It is our endeavour to better understand this from the perspective of workers, employers and stakeholders, to more fully understand how technology can and might be optimised in an ever-changing industry.

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