Supply chain · 29 August 2017

Brexit instability risks immediate future of UK food and drink supply chain

Unrecognizable workers hands in protective blue gloves make selection of frozen raspberries. Factory for freezing and packing of fruits and vegetables. Motion blur, low light and visible noise.
Some 17 per cent of the UK’s food and drink business owners would relocate overseas if they lost access to EU workers

A trade body collective representing the UK’s £110bn food and drink supply chain has published new findings to demonstrate the severity of challenges facing the sector as Britain prepares to leave the EU.

Co-ordinated by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), and including bodies such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the National Farmers Union (NFU), the UK Food and Drink Supply Chain Workforce Group has sought to establish the sector’s post-Brexit priorities through an extensive survey of business owners.

The most pressing issue for small food and drink businesses, according to the survey’s findings, is the impact of the end to freedom of movement. A third of the workforce in the food and drink supply chain are EU nationals – one in five of the two million EU workers currently in Britain.

Without access to EU workers, a third of respondents claimed their business would become “unviable”.

The effects of Brexit had already appeared to have been felt by business owners within the food and drink industry. Almost half said their EU employees were considering leaving Britain, while a third said they had already seen EU nationals leave the country.

The report also warned of a potential business exodus. Some 17 per cent said they’d consider relocating overseas in they couldn’t hire EU nationals.

In a statement, Ian Wright, director general of the FDF, articulated some of the sector’s central concerns.

“The UK food and drink supply chain ensures that consumers have access to the safe, affordable and delicious range of food and drink that they have come to expect. Food is a matter of national security, so the results of this report are of central concern to businesses across the ‘farm to fork’ industries.

“It is only a matter of time before the uncertainty reported by businesses results in an irreversible exit of EU workers from these shores. This is a scenario that will hurt the UK culturally and economically.

“Without our dedicated and valued workforce we would be unable to feed the nation. This is why it is imperative that we receive assurances from Government about their future, and that of our wider workforce.” 

Among the short and medium-term recommendations put to government by the FDF include securing the rights of EEA nationals currently in the UK, and acknowledging the strategic importance of Britain’s food and drink supply chain.

The long-term measures put to policy makers would see greater investment in skills provision for jobs in the sector. Some 70 per cent of employers faced challenges when trying to recruit permanent employees locally, and the workforce group has emphasised building skills through apprenticeships and investing in technology to support automation.

British industry welcomes plan for streamlined EU customs arrangements

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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