UK drinks and food firms fear talent drain from North to Republic
UK food and drink manufacturers have called on Brussels and London to "promptly resolve" the border issue posed by Brexit and are worried that EU migrants working in the sector in the North will leave for the Republic.
Nearly half of businesses operating in the UK food supply chain have said European Union workers are thinking about leaving the UK because of Brexit, a new survey found.
The study from the British Food and Drink Federation also cited the future relationship between the UK and Ireland as a key concern, particularly regarding the border and the movement of people and goods.
"The continuation of the Common Travel Area (CTA), an agreement that dates back to 1922, is critical for workers across our supply chain," the report, published yesterday, said.
"Furthermore, there is the potential that if the CTA is disrupted, EU nationals may simply move from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, as illustrated by comments from many of the respondents to our survey.
"With negotiations under way, we call on UK government and the EU27 to promptly resolve the issue of the border, including the crucial question of ease of access for NI and the RoI's workforce."
Of the two million EU nationals (excluding those from Ireland) working in the UK, about 400,000 are in the food and drink supply chain, the report noted. Almost three-quarters of respondents face challenges when recruiting permanent local staff and almost two thirds when looking for local seasonal/ temporary workers.
If organisations across the food chain did not have access to EU nationals, the report states, over a third of respondents argued their business would become unviable.
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Paul Kelly, director of lobby group Food and Drink Ireland, said any disruption to labour market flows in the UK will be disruptive to business in both jurisdictions, but he said there was no evidence so far of a flow of workers to the Republic.
"To date, there's no sign of any inflows of people coming in here," Mr Kelly said.
"There is always the potential that some people could move here, but any benefits [to Ireland of gaining these workers] would be outweighed by the restrictions in terms of losing that common labour market between Ireland and the UK."
Michael Bell, executive director of Northern Ireland Food and Drink, said the body agreed with the study's findings, but said the impact will be greater in the North than Britain. In the latter, food and drink manufacturing is 16pc of the private sector, whereas it is 25pc in Northern Ireland, he said.
"The UK's position and the political statements made are worrying people and we're seeing less people [workers] coming in, and more people going home," Mr Bell told the Irish Independent. "The net effect of that is a constriction in the supply. We are now running up to one of our seasonal peaks, so demand for migrant workers at seasonal times tends to go up. So at the same time supply is tightening, demand is going up."
Official data published yesterday showed net migration to Britain fell to a three-year low of 246,000 in the 12 months to March, as fewer EU immigrants arrived and growing numbers left.
But Mr Bell hasn't heard of any shift in workers from the North to the Republic at this stage. Stephen Cameron, group commercial director of Northern Ireland dairy company Dale Farm, said about 22pc of Dale Farm's workforce comes from other areas of the EU.
"It will be crucial to protect this valuable element of our employee base and ensure we continue to offer a competitive package as a major local employer. We continue to monitor the Brexit situation closely."