Brexit survey reveals mass UK food industry workforce shortages

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24 Aug 2017 --- Trade bodies from across Britain’s food and drink supply chain are warning that the continuation of a mass EU exodus of workers will damage the UK economy and cause serious disruption to the sector. Almost one-third of UK food and drink business has had non-UK EU leave their roles since the referendum first called for Brexit last summer, according to the latest survey involving more than 600 businesses.

Nearly 50 percent said they were uncertain about their future. 

The landmark survey on their sector, which employs four million people across the UK, casts new light on the "farm-to-fork" sector's Brexit priorities from a workforce perspective. It also lays bare the severity of the situation that the UK food and drink supply chain faces, without reassurances regarding the future of EU workers. 

EU nationals number two million across the UK economy, with 20 percent of these workers employed across the food and drink supply chain.

The findings of the survey reveal:
- Almost half (47 percent) of businesses surveyed said EU nationals were considering leaving the UK due to uncertainty surrounding their future.
- Over a third (36 percent) of businesses surveyed said they would become unviable if they had no access to EU workers.
Almost a third (31 percent) of businesses surveyed had seen EU nationals leave since the EU referendum.
- Seventeen percent of respondents said they would look to relocate overseas if they had no access to EU nationals.

In light of the findings, the survey includes a number of key recommendations to Government, which includes legislation to secure the rights of EEA nationals currently in the UK, a review of the recording of immigration data and recognizing the strategic importance of food and drink supply chain.

In the medium term, the survey urges the building of an attractive and effective migration system; ensuring there is no cliff-edge when the UK leaves the EU and an increased efficiency through adequate Home Office resourcing.

And in the long term; Investment in skills provision for the food and drink supply chain, support access to hard-to-reach labor market solutions and to allow the benefits system to make flexible working easier. 

The government has been clear in its desire to reduce net migration, but the food and drink sector faces a rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap which cannot be solved overnight. Industry cannot afford a "cliff edge" which impacts the industry’s ability to grow, produce and serve the food Britain eats.

The sector welcomed the announcement from the Prime Minister in June 2017 regarding safeguarding the position of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU.

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 and it’s vital that this change is carefully managed through an orderly transition, says the FDF. 

In addition, the sector has already started to focus on upskilling wherever possible locally within the UK as it expects the country to reduce its reliance on EU workers, but with record numbers of employment in key geographical locations, it is often a question of local labor availability for the roles, it adds. 

“The UK food and drink supply chain ensures that consumers have access to the safe, affordable and delicious range of food and drink that they have come to expect. Food is a matter of national security, so the results of this report are of central concern to businesses across the 'farm to fork' industries,” says Ian Wright CBE, Director General, Food & Drink Federation.

“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.”

“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.”

The survey was coordinated by the Food & Drink Federation and conducted among members of the following trade bodies: Association of Labor Providers; British Beer and Pub Association; British Hospitality Association; British Retail Consortium; Food and Drink Federation; Fresh Produce Consortium; National Farmers Union.

Further key statistics include:
Almost three quarters (73 percent) of respondents said EU workers were concerned about their right to remain in the UK, while 70 percent of respondents faced challenges when trying to recruit permanent employees locally and 63 percent said the same for seasonal/temporary positions.

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