Will there be "massive disruption to entire food chain" without EU workers?

More than a third of UK food and farming businesses say they would become unviable if they had no access to EU workers, according to a coalition of sector bodies working together for the first time.

Image: David Anstiss (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image: David Anstiss (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The report published today (24 August), based on a survey of the UK food and farming sector and published by the Food & Drink Federation working with a range of trade bodies including the NFU, Fresh Produce Consortium and Association of Labour Providers, warns: "An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers able to work in the UK after the UK leaves the EU would cause massive disruption for the entire food chain."

From the 238 responses it received from businesses and trade associations, including 21% in food farming, it found that:

  • 34% of survey respondents’ permanent workforce were EU workers while 6% were non-EU workers;
  • 31% of businesses have seen EU nationals leave since last June’s EU referendum;
  • 73% said EU nationals in their workforce are concerned about their right to remain in the UK;
  • More than half of businesses said they were "not confident" of being able to recruit for lower-skilled and unskilled positions in the next two years;
  • 17% said they would look to relocate overseas if they had no access to EU nationals.

The report, Breaking the chain: Key workforce considerations for the UK food and drink supply chain as we leave the EU makes several recommendations to Government to address the problem.

These include:

  • legislating to secure the rights of EEA nationals currently in the UK before Brexit negotiations conclude;
  • recognising the strategic importance of food and drink supply chain;
  • building a simple and effective migration system, including widening tier 5 ("youth mobility") of the immigration system to more countries than the current eight;
  • ensuring no regulatory "cliff-edge" when the UK leaves the EU;
  • investing in skills provision for the food and drink supply chain, including targeting NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training), the long-term unemployed, ex-prisoners and other economically inactive groups;
  • adapting the benefits system to make flexible working easier.

It says Brexit now offers "a chance to reset and create an efficient and workable system for EU nationals, that has the trust and confidence of Government, business, and most importantly, the public".

The size of the workforce in the food and drink supply chain is expected to grow by 11% in the next two years, it warns: "With an ageing population and increasing skills gap, a functioning immigration system is essential to filling jobs from farm to fork," it says, adding that the Brexit vote has simply "compounded the issue and brought it into focus at a much faster rate".

Echoing the earlier Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) report on labour, the FDF report also complains of "the paucity of official data on migration", saying: "This has made it extremely difficult to build an accurate and timely picture of the number of EU nationals working in the food and drink supply chain and to develop effective policy."

The British Retail Consortium’s director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie says: "The UK’s post-Brexit labour market and immigration policies should be framed to support domestic firms, including retailers, access the skills they need. A dual approach is needed to support skills development in the UK alongside an immigration system for EU nationals that meets the needs of the food supply chain."

He adds: "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."

Currently around 400,000 EU nationals work in the UK food and drink supply chain. They make up an estimated 9% of the permanent agricultural workforce, in addition to the 80,000 seasonal workers employed in the sector each year.

The FDF-led group which assembled the report says its work will continue throughout the Brexit negotiation period, contributing to consultations including those by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and the Home Office.

Case Study: G's Fresh

Fenland-based vegetable supplier G’s Fresh illustrates the difficulties growers face in trying to recruit locally. Its Seed to Success youth employment programme, targeted at 18-24-year-old NEETs, offers qualifications, personal mentoring and six weeks’ work experience with the chance of full-employment at the end.

However local Jobcentres has now told G’s it will not be able to support a further group as they do not have the candidates to put forward. The unemployment rate in the area is 1.4%.

So far, out of 123 applicants to the programme, 73 were given interviews, of whom 34, including 21 NEETS, were offered starts. Of the 30 who finished the six weeks, 16 were offered positions, but just 11 "found employment afterwards".

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