The food and drink industry in the UK faces concerns over the potential loss of European workers following the Brexit vote.
Access to the labour force from mainland Europe is a key part of the UK’s agri-food sector, which may suffer as a result of the European exit and lasting racial conflicts.
The European workers in the British food industry make up a large portion of the overall workforce – around 29%. That accounts for around 130,000 Eastern European migrants, who came to the UK as part of the open borders policy maintained by the EU. This £109 billion industry may now be under threat, as a reshuffle triggered by the loss of these workers could have serious consequences.
Ian Wright is the director general of the Food and Drink Federation, or FDF. He notes that the industry now has to worry about access to labour in the wake of uncertainty following the referendum. Some workers may believe they have to return home, while some may choose to when faced with anti-European sentiments.
“Lots of [FDF] members have already had hundreds of requests from their eastern European workers asking for advice,” said Mr Wright. “I had a worker in tears, thinking they would have to go back to eastern Europe.”
According to the FDF, more than 70% of their members expressed a desire to stay in the EU during polls conducted before the referendum itself.
“Those who supported Remain have no plan B and more worryingly, those who supported Leave have no plan at all,” he said, calling it a “catastrophic decision” which had left him “heartbroken”.
The same workers may return home to Eastern Europe to find work there, or may choose a different country in search of international food jobs. If they do, this could spell disaster for the food production sector of the UK, as well as farming sectors which also rely heavily on help from European workers.
Manufacturing Costs Rising
Mr Wright also expressed concerns about the sustainability of manufacturing in the UK, particularly when faced with the current weakening of the pound. Companies which rely on sourcing ingredients abroad are already seeing a huge drop in profits thanks to the rising relative costs of those products.
Mr Wright’s prediction is that soaring costs will have to affect prices shown to the consumer, though the results will not be immediate. As existing stock is used up, new stock will be priced higher, or the manufacturers will have to face a loss.
Loss of Trust
Those in executive food positions will have some difficult decisions to make, especially with the disappearance of the food and drink regulations which make up the EU’s contribution to the law. The horsemeat scandal of 2013 was a huge blow to consumer confidence, and that trust will need to be regained swiftly following the loss of regulations.
“That trust needs to be underpinned strongly rather than on the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
With three non-food businesses already packing their bags and moving out of the UK as a result of the referendum, Mr Wright warns that more may follow – some of them from within the food industry. When EU-member states appear to be more attractive to business owners, workers may face a decision between losing their jobs or upping sticks alongside their bosses.
If you are in a position where you would like to work in the EU, or you are in search of a new job thanks to the changes over the coming weeks and months, be sure to visit Focus to see what is on offer within your skillset.