Lobbying is needed to avert Brexit labour crisis

A large number of EU nationals work in the UK agri-food sector

All sectors of the food industry should be more vocal in lobbying government to address the “urgent” shortage of non-UK EU nationals arising from Brexit, the deputy president of the National Farmers Union has argued.

Farmers and manufacturers should all be making a case for the reliable supply of EU labour to fulfil the need for 85,000 seasonal jobs, “because the government will not just give us this”, Minette Batters claimed.

Speaking at the British Meat Processors Association Annual Conference, held in London last month, Batters criticised suggestions that automation was the answer to the potential labour shortage. “I’ve heard some ridiculous ideas,” she said.

‘Driving a cheap food policy’

“All this business about automation. Well, let’s not forget that as a result of successive governments driving a cheap food policy, this industry has jumped through hoops to become as efficient as it possibly can.

“A workforce is absolutely essential, and together we need to make a case for that workforce.”

Food and Drink Federation director general Ian Wright told conference delegates that labour shortage concerns were a matter of urgency, given that the food manufacturing industry alone was faced with losing 20,000–30,000 workers a year.

“The UK food manufacturing sector employs 400,000 workers. Of those, 120,000 are European and 130,000 are aged 55 or over so the numbers are very serious,” he said.

‘The issue that delivered Brexit’

“I think government officials have begun to get the point. The trouble is that they all believe immigration was the issue that delivered Brexit, and so they all believe they’ve got to do something about net migration figures.”

Wright predicted that the government would opt for a seasonal workers’ scheme, which would make available around 0.5M short-term visas between now and the mid 2020s.

But, he warned that the cost of the scheme would be carried by the food industry. “The whole process is going to be policed by employers – so get ready for it, because it’s going to come.”

Both were speaking ahead of the government’s proposal that all 3M EU citizens currently resident in the UK would have to apply to be on a “settled status” register after Brexit.

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