Brexit threatens more than 100,000 jobs in food and drink sector

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Industry chiefs warn of ‘severe skills shortage’ as government fails to guarantee future of two million EU workers

Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the agriculture and food sector could be lost, and many of the UK’s home-grown industries could be at risk, if the government is unable to secure the free movement of labour in post-Brexit negotiations, industry heads have warned.

The sector – which spans everything from agriculture and food manufacturing to retail and catering – is heavily reliant on workers from other EU countries, especially for seasonal jobs.

Migrants from mainland Europe make up around a quarter (100,000) of the 400,000-strong workforce in the food and drink manufacturing sector. According to ONS figures, a further 292,000 migrants are employed in UK manufacturing and another 230,000 in retail and wholesaling. Both functions are vital to the success of the UK’s £109bn agri-food industry, and could struggle without access to the European labour market, analysts have warned.

Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat & Food Traders, said the UK meat industry “would not survive” without migrant labour.

“Go into any abattoir or meat processing factory in the east of England – or anywhere in the UK – and you will see Polish and Portuguese workers helping the slaughtermen and doing what are seen as the unpleasant jobs, such as evisceration,” he said.

Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said he had received hundreds of calls from more than a dozen companies worried about their employees originally from mainland Europe and their future in the UK, and three non-food businesses had already decided to leave the UK for other EU member states as a result of the country’s decision to leave the European Union.

In a survey among FDF members before the vote on 23 June, 70 percent had expressed a wish to stay in the EU, and the surprise decision to exit had left the industry in “complete chaos”.

“Those who supported Remain have no plan B and, more worryingly, those who supported Leave have no plan at all,” said Wright.

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