Employment issues due to Brexit threatens businesses in UK food and drink supply industry

by Ray Clancy on August 28, 2017

The UK’s £110 billion food and drink supply industry faces serious problems relating to Brexit with over a third believing that their business will become unviable if they are not able to recruit from European Union countries.

Research carried out by trade bodies reveals that 20% of the EU nationals working in the UK are employed across the food and drink supply chain and uncertainty about Brexit means that many are leaving.

(dolgachov/Bigstock.com)

They survey found that 47% of businesses said that EU nationals were considering leaving the UK due to uncertainty surrounding their future and 31% said employees have already left since the referendum in June 2016.

Additionally, the survey found that 36% of businesses in the industry believe that they will become unviable if they have no access to EU workers while 17% said they would look to relocate overseas if they had no access to EU nationals.

In the short term the industry is calling on the UK Government to legislate to secure the rights of European Economic Area nationals currently in the UK, to review the recording of immigration data and recognise the strategic importance of food and drink supply chain.

In the medium term it wants to see an attractive and effective migration system coming out of the Brexit negotiations and the avoidance of a cliff-edge when the UK leaves the EU while in the long term it says there needs to be investment in skills for the food and drink supply chain.

‘The Government has been clear in its desire to reduce net migration, but our sector faces a rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap which cannot be solved overnight. Industry cannot afford a cliff edge which impacts on our ability to grow, produce and serve the food we eat,’ the report says.

‘An abrupt reduction in the number of workers from the EU able to work in the UK after Brexit would cause significant disruption to the whole food and drink supply chain. It is vital that this change is carefully managed through an orderly transition,’ it points out.

‘Our supply chain is aware of the expectation to reduce reliance on EU workers and is focused on upskilling wherever possible locally within the UK, with a strong emphasis on building skills through apprenticeships and investment in technology to support automation. However, with record high levels of employment in key geographical locations, it is often a question of local labour availability for the roles we are seeking to fill,’ it adds.

According to Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at BRC, the UK’s post Brexit labour market and immigration policies should be framed to support domestic firms, including retailers, access the skills they need.

‘A dual approach is needed to support skills development in the UK alongside an immigration system for EU nationals that meets the needs of the food supply chain. An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers eligible to work in the UK after Brexit would result in significant disruption for the entire food supply chain, with consequences for the availability and price of UK goods for consumers,’ he said.

‘EU workers are key to getting British food on our shelves; from producing food, through transport to colleagues in store they are vital in providing the service and quality British consumers demand. To deliver a fair Brexit for consumers and tackle uncertainty, EU colleagues currently working in the retail industry and the wider food supply chain need further clarity about their status once the UK leaves the EU,’ he concluded.

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