Brexit could cause a food industry crisis unless urgent action is taken to resolve labour shortages, a Select Committee has warned.
Agricultural firms cannot recruit or retain enough staff, according to an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee report entitled Feeding the Nation: Labour Constraints.
The warning flys in the face of the Conservative’s election pledge to end freedom of movement and reduce immigration to the tens of thousands.
Of the approximately 400,000 people working in UK food manufacturing around 120,000 are foreign citizens, leaving the sector at particular risk from sharp drops in the labour market.
Despite concerns from across the sector, minister of state for immigration at the Home Office, Robert Goodwill, told the committee earlier this month that labour market fears were “a bit of a scare story”.
The EFRA committee disagreed, stating: “We do not share the confidence of the government that the sector does not have a problem: on the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply,”
Royal Agricultural University lecturer Phil Hudson told the Independent that labour shortages could have drastic effects on the UK’s food sources.
He said: “If freedom of movement finishes overnight a lot of these businesses would simply not be able to continue.
“You can’t just turn on the tap one minute and turn it off the next, that has real implications for us in terms of the supply of British fruit and vegetables and also the dairy industry.”
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) called on the government to provide guarantees for the future of the industry’s EU workforce.
In a statement the FDF highlighted the sector’s skills gap and said EU employees “are vital to keeping the UK fed.”
In April, the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) told the EFRA committee that a recent survey of their members found that 21 percent did not expect to be able to source enough workers this summer.
ALP chief executive David Camp said: “Government should not wait for labour supply to the UK horticultural sector to fail before rushing in a hasty and ill-thought-through seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme.”