British food industry demands post-Brexit rights for EU migrant workers

©iStock

Major food industry bodies have written to the UK government demanding priority for EU workers after Brexit, saying ‘unambiguous reassurance’ should be given for the right to remain.

The open letter was signed by heads of 30 food and drink industry bodies including the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) and the British Retail Consortium.

The letter reads: “The government must ensure the place of food and drink both in our new industrial strategy and at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. Workers from the EU, some of whom are already leaving the UK, play a significant role… it is important to recognise that these workers are highly flexible and provide an essential reservoir of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour.”

Fears rest largely on the prospect of a work-permit system following an end to Britain’s part in the EU’s free movement of workers, and how the work-permits will be granted.

The government has not yet announced whether it will adopt such a system for EU citizens, or what the system would look like, but the coalition is fighting for one that is 'sector based' and which will grant equal treatment to its workers as to those of the financial and aerospace industries.

"The Government must ensure the place of food and drink in our new industrial strategy and it must place the sector’s priorities at the heart of the Brexit negotiations."

The UK food and drink industry is worth £18bn (€21.4bn) and employs nearly four million people across the supply chain - contributing more to the economy than the financial and aerospace industries combined.

Tim Lang, food policy professor at City University London told FoodNavigator: "It's the latest indication that the UK food industry is now putting its collective head above the Brexit parapet… In the referendum, the public was enticed by vague promises about the joys of Brexit when the reality is that we are 38% fed from continental Europe.

"This letter is a correct reminder of the labour dependency, too. If a Brexit does happen, people need to gird their loins. Who will do the food work? Do we want a return to the spam and tinned peaches era? What kind of 'taking back control' is it to demonise Continental working people who are often lowly paid? It's time to wake up, drop the simplistic ideologies and to get real."

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