Business

Food industry warns of higher prices without EU workers

Worker picking apples Image copyright Reuters

The UK faces higher food prices without continued access to EU workers, 30 food and drink associations have warned.

In a letter published in the Guardian, they argue that EU workers play an important role in the supply chain and some are already starting to leave.

It called on the government to offer "unambiguous reassurance" about their right to remain.

The Home Office said in response it was "harnessing the industry's knowledge" and "ensuring their voice was heard".

Nearly four million people in the UK are employed in everything from harvesting to production to selling food and drink.

In food manufacturing just under a third of workers are from the EU.

"Workers from the EU, some of whom are already leaving the UK, play a significant role in delivering affordable and high-quality food and drink," the letter said.

"The government should offer unambiguous reassurance to EU workers throughout our supply chain about their right to remain. For the longer term, it is important to recognise that these workers are highly flexible and provide an essential reservoir of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Whisky is among the UK's biggest exports

The trade associations also warn that the country's food security is at risk and that many workers are already leaving in the wake of the Brexit vote and the fall in the value of the pound.

They call for the importance of the industry to be recognised to the country's "economic and physical wellbeing" and argue that it should receive equal treatment to the financial or automotive sectors.

"All options should be explored, including a workable points-based system for shortage occupations, sector-based and seasonal/guest worker schemes and effective transitionary arrangements," they say.

"If they are not, the UK will face less food choice and higher food prices."

Signatories to the letter include the Food and Drink Federation, the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers and the British Beer and Pubs Association.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The hospitality industry generates one in eight new UK jobs

Nestle chair Dame Fiona Kendrick, who is also president of the Food and Drink Federation, says there are "a lot of skills we're not able to meet" in the UK.

Very often companies have to look abroad for food engineers and other skilled labour, because not enough graduates are coming through from UK universities, she says.

'Complex issue'

Farms also rely on unskilled workers coming from other parts of the EU.

"We just can't find the people in the UK to do the jobs," she told the BBC.

That sentiment was echoed by the National Farmers Union. It said that many companies who provide farmers with agricultural workers just couldn't meet demand.

"The horticulture sector is on red alert and there will be crops rotting in the field if they can not be picked, it's as simple as that," Minnette Batters, deputy president of the NFU, told Radio 4's You and Yours.

"As shoppers, we really enjoy being able to stretch the food season. You can now buy a British strawberry from the end of March until the end of November, but they are reliant on the human hands to pick them," she said.

Food and drink exports are worth £18bn, with Scotch whisky, chocolate, beer and salmon the biggest exports by value.

"The UK needs a fair and controlled immigration policy and that is exactly what this government will deliver," a Home Office spokesman said.

"We want to see net migration to the UK fall to sustainable levels - the tens of thousands. But we recognise this is a complex issue and that there is no quick fix.

"As we draw up our plans to leave the EU, we are harnessing industry's knowledge and experience and ensuring their voice is heard."

More on this story