Food industry sounds alarm as workforce shortage looms

Nearly one in three (31%) UK food businesses have had EU nationals leave since the Brexit vote in June 2016, whilst 47% said EU nationals in their workforce are considering leaving.

The figures, taken from a survey of members in organisations spanning the entire food and drink supply chain and presented in a new report, show “a rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap”.

Of the two million EU nationals working in the UK, one in five currently work in the food and drink supply chain. More than a third (36%) of the firms polled – across farming, manufacturing, retail, foodservice and hospitality – claimed they would become “unviable” if they had no access to EU workers.

Indeed, 70% of respondents admitted they have faced challenges when trying to recruit permanent employees locally, whilst 63% said the same for seasonal or temporary positions. “There’s a massive misconception that this is about money,” said one respondent, “it’s not, it’s about willingness to work.”

The “Breaking the chain” report, coordinated by the Food and Drink Federation, noted: “With an end to free movement coming, accessing EU workers is likely to become a very different process to what is in place now for business. We are working to explore possible alternatives to free movement to ensure the whole supply chain has access to flexible and skilled, temporary/seasonal and permanent, semi-skilled and low-skilled labour, without which we could not function.”

FDF director-general Ian Wright said it is “only a matter of time before the uncertainty reported by businesses results in an irreversible exit of EU workers from these shores. Without our dedicated and valued workforce we would be unable to feed the nation,” he warned.

The authors called for “careful management” of Brexit through an “orderly transition”. Amongst the most urgent recommendations is for the government to guarantee the rights of nationals from across the European Economic Area.

In April, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee warned that fruit and vegetables could be left “rotting in fields” due to labour shortages that have “got worse” since the UK voted to leave the EU.

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