Michele Shirlow – Farm Week Column 5th July 2018

Brexodus now posing serious challenges for our dynamic food and hospitality industries

The statistics on an exodus of European Union workers from Northern Ireland from The Detail publication last week are very worrying because of the important contribution they have made to the food production and hospitality industries here over the past decade or so.

Many of our companies, both large and small, are heavily dependent of the skills and willingness to work of employees from many parts of Europe.

The statistics show that the number of workers from countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Spain has fallen by 26 percent since the UK’s Brexit referendum. And it appears highly likely that the exodus will continue to grow as Brexit draws ever near. The scale of the Brexodus has not really been clear before or fully appreciated.

While Brexit is not the sole reason for this situation – many have been lured home because of the weakness of sterling and improvements in economic and other conditions at home, it is still clear that concern over the future has become the most important influence.

The labour pool here also isn’t helped by the current highly improved employment rate and by the fact that the economic inactivity here at around 30 percent is the highest in the UK.

Labour force estimates from the Department for Economy (DfE) reveal there were 14,000 fewer EU nationals working here by the end of March 2018 compared to the period of the June 2016 referendum, representing a 26 percent drop.

Other available estimates show a falling number of Lithuanian workers while the number of Polish workers has fluctuated since June 2016.

Industries here heavily reliant on migrant workers include manufacturing, the agri-food sector, hospitality, health and social care services, and retail and services. I know from talking to employers in food and hospitality of the difficulties there are currently experiencing.

And there are statistics that suggest that agri-food businesses here have seen an 80 percent reduction in the recruitment of EU workers since the Brexit vote. Shortages are developing right across the supply chain.

There’s a chronic shortage of chefs, for instance, at this time when our tourism industry is moving towards its revenue target of £1 billion and new hotels are steadily opening their doors for guests and diners.

I am aware of important initiatives within local colleges such as Belfast Met as well as several catering businesses included James Street South in Belfast to help in addressing the problem. Clearly more needs to be done at many levels to produce a new generation of skilled and dedicated chefs.

There are problems too in harvesting crops such as potatoes as well as in many food processing operations across Northern Ireland. Another successful local industry experiencing severe difficulties in fish and seafood from the trawlers into the processing plants.

Food NI has been involved in discussions to address the problem. We continue to be keen to use our contacts, knowledge and expertise to strengthen the pool of skills available here to all aspects of the agri-food and hospitality industries.

There’s clearly scope to develop the apprenticeship scheme for instance. Meaningful initiatives, however, continue to be inhibited by the absence of a local administration at Stormont.