Blog: Dean BestUK food associations come together on Brexit

Dean Best | 9 December 2016

The plethora of food manufacturing associations in the UK has been argued by some to be an impediment to the industry coming to a coherent position on the aftermath of Brexit and on what the sector should be demanding from the country's government now and ahead of talks with the EU.

This week, more than 30 bodies published an open letter on the subject of labour, one of the critical issues facing the sector.

Trade associations including the Food and Drink Federation, the British Frozen Food Federation and Scotland Food and Drink called on the UK government to "bring confidence to the labour market".

The UK food manufacturing sector employs 117,000 non-UK EU workers, benefiting from the free movement of labour between EU member states.

Since the UK's vote to leave the EU on 23 June, manufacturers have expressed concerns about how Brexit could affect the supply of labour from across the English Channel.

In the open letter, the trade associations said EU workers had already started to leave the UK in the wake of the referendum and the fall in the value of sterling and called on the Government to give "unambiguous reassurance to EU workers throughout our supply chain about their right to remain here".

Whether the UK government takes heed of the call is uncertain. Many times since the vote in June, ministers have insisted they do not want to give other EU states public indications of their negotiating positions before talks begin, which at the moment looks set to by the end of next March.

This week, MPs in the UK's House of Commons supported a motion for the Government to publish its Brexit plan. A plan of some kind, then, is set to be outlined - it is, however, still unclear what details will be included.

The open letter from the UK's food industry associations also included a call for the Government to "place the sector’s priorities at the heart of the Brexit negotiations".

And the letter underlined how one of those priorities is labour.

"A significant element in our ability to deliver affordable and high-quality food and drink is the part played by workers from the European Union," the letter read.

"For the longer term it is important to recognise that these workers from the EU are highly flexible and provide a reservoir of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour without which the industry could not function. In fact, in some sectors of the food chain EU workers predominantly work in skilled and semi-skilled roles.

"If we are to adopt a work permit system to control immigration, then it is vital that the whole of the food and drink supply chain receives equal treatment with financial services or the automotive sector. 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. If they are not, the UK will face less food choice and higher food prices.

"The food and drink industry has not always spoken with one voice. Today it has come together in the national interest to make the strongest possible case for UK food and drink. That voice must be heard and heeded."

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