Brexit: Food sector warns on worker shortages

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UK food makers have issued a warning on the “significant disruption” that will ensue if the sector is hit by a drop in the number of EU workers in the UK following Brexit.

A survey taking in the views of the UK’s €120bn (£110bn) ‘farm to fork’ food supply chain found that more than a third of businesses said they would become “unviable” if they were denied access to EU workers.

The survey was coordinated by the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) in conjunction with six other industry bodies that span the food supply chain, from farming groups to hospitality associations.

The food sector is a big employer for European migrants. There are around 2m EU nationals working in the UK, with 20% of those employed in the food and drink supply chain.

Almost half of businesses surveyed, 47%, said that EU nationals in their businesses are considering leaving the UK due to uncertainty over their future, while 31% reported that they have seen EU nationals leave since the Brexit referendum.

Unveiling the results, the FDF warned the UK food sector faces a “rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap” and cautioned that a “cliff edge” scenario dramatically cutting the number of European workers in the UK would impede the industry’s ability to grow, produce and serve food.

The FDF said the food and drink businesses are “aware of the expectation” to reduce reliance on EU workers. To this end, employers are “upskilling” UK workers “wherever possible”, with a focus on apprenticeships and investment in technology to support automation. However, the group stressed that these efforts are coming up against a lack of local labour to fill roles. 

Significantly, the FDF found 17% of food and drink businesses said they would relocate overseas if they were denied access to EU nationals.

Call for clarity

The FDF “welcomed” the statement from the Prime Minister Theresa May in June on safeguarding the position of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU. However, the body insisted that there is an immediate need for clarity on the status of EU nationals in the UK to avoid an exodus of workers. 

“It is only a matter of time before the uncertainty reported by businesses results in an irreversible exit of EU workers from these shores. This is a scenario that will hurt the UK culturally and economically,” warned FDF director general Ian Wright.

“Without our dedicated and valued workforce, we would be unable to feed the nation. This is why it is imperative that we receive assurances from government about their future, and that of our wider workforce.”

In the short term, the FDF wants the government to legislate to secure the rights of EEA nationals currently in the UK and review how immigration data is recorded.

The UK government should then seek to build an “attractive and effective” migration system to ensure there is no “cliff edge” when the UK leaves the EU. The FDF noted that in order for this to prove effective the Home Office will require “adequate” resourcing to increase efficiency.

Longer-term solutions to the food sector’s skills shortage appear are more complex. The FDF stressed the need to invest in skills provision for the food and drink supply chain, support access to labour market solutions and make changes to the social security benefits system to make flexible working easier.

Migration at ‘lowest level’

The survey results were released as it emerged UK net migration figures have hit their lowest level for three years after a surge in the number of EU nationals leaving the UK since last June’s Brexit vote.

Net migration fell 81,000 to 246,000 in the year to March 2017, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics. Over 60% of this decline was the result of a drop in net migration from the EU, which fell by 51,000.

The government has committed to reducing net migration levels to under 100,000.

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