The UK food industry has warned that a Brexit workforce shortage could leave a third of its businesses unviable.
The Food and Drink Federation said: “Our sector faces a rapidly approaching workforce shortage and skills gap.”
In its survey of the “farm-to-fork” supply chain, almost half of all businesses surveyed said EU nationals working in the UK were considering leaving.
It said that 31% of them have already seen EU workers leave the country.
The Federation is calling on the UK government to guarantee the rights of nationals from across the European Economic Area.
Ian Wright, its director-general, 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.”
In April a report by the Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee said: “Evidence … suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.”
A government spokesperson said: “In June we published our offer to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, confirming no-one living here lawfully will be asked to leave when we exit the EU and they will have a grace period to regularise their status.”
The Federation said it had welcomed the government’s announcement. However, of the businesses it surveyed:
- 47% said EU nationals were considering leaving the UK
- 36% said they would become unviable if they had no access to EU workers
- 31% reported EU nationals leaving since the referendum
- 17% said they may relocate overseas if they had no access to EU nationals
The Federation is calling on the government to ensure there is no abrupt reduction in the number of EU in the UK the day the country leaves the EU, which “would cause significant disruption to the whole food and drink supply chain”.
Mr Wright said: “This is why it is imperative that we receive assurances from government about their future, and that of our wider workforce.”
Last month the National Farmers Union deputy president Minette Batters said: “The NFU cannot emphasise enough the urgent need for clarity and certainty on access to a competent and reliable workforce and all other issues relating to Brexit.
“The industry needs commitments that there will be sufficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers from outside the UK post-Brexit.”
A Government spokesperson commented: “After we leave the EU we must have an immigration system which works in the best interests of the UK. Crucial to the development of this will be the views from a range of businesses, including the agricultural, food, drink and manufacturing sectors.
“We will be setting out our initial proposals for this system in the autumn but we have already been clear there will be an implementation period after we leave the EU to avoid a cliff edge for businesses.”
In the longer term the Federation says it accepts there will be a reduction in the number of EU workers.
“Our supply chain is aware of the expectation to reduce reliance on EU workers and is focused on upskilling wherever possible locally within the UK, with a strong emphasis on building skills through apprenticeships and investment in technology to support automation,” it said.