Food companies are worried about a post-Brexit skills shortage

The industry has warned it will struggle to cope if migration rules are too tight.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2017

The challenges (and opportunities) posed by Brexit vary significantly by sector. Financial services firms are worried about financial passporting, exporters fear tariffs and time-consuming customs checks. Small farms could find themselves with less state financial aid, while big pharma worries it could face complicated inconsistency in regulations.

Today the food industry, which employs around 20% of the 2 million EU workers in Britain, has warned of a potential forthcoming skills shortage. A survey produced by business groups across the whole food supply chain, from farmers to retailers, found that more than one third (36%) felt their business would be unviable without access to EU workers and 17% would consider relocating overseas should that come to pass. Even before the UK has left there are signs of a squeeze - 31% of those surveyed said they had already seen workers leave since the referendum. 

‘An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers eligible to work in the UK after Brexit would result in significant disruption for the entire food supply chain, with consequences for the availability and price of UK goods for consumers,’ said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. ‘EU workers are key to getting British food on our shelves; from producing food, through transport to colleagues in store they are vital in providing the service and quality British consumers demand.’

Of course some will argue that these jobs could be done by British workers who would earn higher wages as a result of reduced competition. But given unemployment is at its lowest level in 40 years that seems a little far-fetched.

The groups involved in the survey called on the government to build ‘an attractive and effective immigration system’ (as well as doing more to train UK workers and help those on benefits move into flexible employment), but what such a system will come to look like post-2019 is hard to fathom.

One that allows relatively low-skilled, low-paid migrants from the EU to continue to move to the UK as freely as they do now seems politically unfeasible. But a system remotely as restrictive as that presently faced by non-EU migrants would be unworkable - few on the front line of the food industry’s farms, factories and shop floors meet the required £30,000 salary threshold and would be willing to stump up the hundreds of pounds per year in visa and healthcare charges.

Some kind of difficult compromise seems inevitable, but the bottom line is it’s unlikely to make life easier for employers.

Image source: Arthur Bruce/Geograph


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Want to encourage more female leaders? Openly highlight their achievements

A study shows that publicly praising women not only increases their willingness to lead, their...

Message to Davos: Don't blame lack of trust on 'society'

The reason people don't trust you is probably much closer to home, says public relations...

Dame Cilla Snowball: Life after being CEO

One year on from stepping back as boss of Britain's largest advertising agency, Dame Cilla...

How to change people's minds when they refuse to listen

Research into climate change deniers shows how behavioural science can break down intransigence.

"Paying women equally would cripple our economy"

The brutal fact: underpaid women sustain British business, says HR chief Helen Jamieson.

Why you're terrible at recruitment (and can AI help?)

The short version is you're full of biases and your hiring processes are badly designed....