Trade bodies from across the UK’s £110bn food and drink supply chain have published a landmark survey on their sector, which employs four million people across the UK.
The survey 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% of these workers employed across the food and drink supply chain.
The findings of the survey reveal:
- Almost half (47%) of businesses surveyed said EU nationals were considering leaving the UK due to uncertainty surrounding their future.
- More than a third (36%) of businesses surveyed said they would become unviable if they had no access to EU workers.
- Almost a third (31%) of businesses surveyed had seen EU nationals leave since the EU referendum.
- 17% 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.
- Legislate to secure the rights of EEA nationals currently in the UK.
- Review the recording of immigration data.
- Recognise the strategic importance of food and drink supply chain.
- Build an attractive and effective migration system.
- Ensure no cliff-edge when the UK leaves the EU.
- Increase efficiency through adequate Home Office resourcing.
- Investment in skills provision for the food and drink supply chain.
- Support access to hard-to-reach labour market solutions.
- Allow benefits system to make flexible working easier.
Government has been clear in its desire to reduce net migration, but the sector faces a rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap which cannot be solved overnight, say sector representatives. Industry cannot afford a ‘cliff edge’ which impacts on its ability to grow, produce and serve the food we eat.
With this in mind, 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. It is vital that this change is carefully managed through an orderly transition, says the sector.
The 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.
Ian Wright CBE, director general of the Food & Drink Federation, said: “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.
“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.”
Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, one of the partners in the report, said: “This survey shows it is vital that the uncertainties of Brexit, for our EU workforce, are resolved as soon as possible.
“British brewing and pubs is a ‘grain to glass’ industry. From hop and barley growers, to the food in our pubs, we hugely value our EU employees. Around 20% of the current UK pub workforce is from overseas, and this figure rises to 40%-plus in metropolitan areas.”