A government crackdown on cheap foreign labour risks a disaster that will impact every factory and restaurant in the country, food and drink leaders warned today.
Home secretary Priti Patel unveiled a points-based system that will ban low-skilled workers from coming to work in the UK from 1 January next year.
The government has told businesses they must adapt to employ higher-paid workers from the UK and invest more in automation to end reliance on an immigrant-based workforce.
Ministers estimate 70% of the existing EU workforce would not meet the requirements of its new skilled worker route. Points will be awarded against a list of criteria that includes the ability to speak English and having a job offer with a minimum salary threshold of £25,600.
While that is lower than initial proposals for a £30,000 cut-off, food and drink bosses said the proposals “fundamentally misunderstood” the nature of the industry’s workforce and the practicalities of transforming its business model in just 10 months.
“Retailers rely on complex supply chains and for these to function effectively must be able to access an adequate supply of workers,” said BRC director of business and regulation Tom Ironside.
“Although we welcome the reduction in the salary threshold, it is disappointing that the government has not understood the needs of the economy and the vital contribution of workers supporting the operation of warehouses, food factories and city centre stores.
“When vacancies cannot be filled from the local labour market, businesses must be able to recruit from the widest talent pool available across all skill levels.”
FDF CEO Ian Wright said the plans would “impact every restaurant and every factory in the country”.
Mark Harrison, policy manager at the federation, added: “We have concerns about access to those potential employees who won’t qualify through these ‘skilled’ routes such as bakery assistants, meat processors, and workers essential to the production of huge array of basic foodstuffs such as cheese, pasta and sausages.
“While we are committed to promoting the use of automation and technology in our sector, the benefits of such innovations will not be felt overnight, and some food chain roles remain challenging to automate.”
The government has sought to limit the impact of its proposals on the food industry, with new rules also being announced regarding seasonal workers, which will allow farmers to hire up to 10,000 workers in 2020 - an increase from the previous 2,500.
But the NFU said the moves tinkered around the edges of the problem and warned the government’s crackdown would lead to food shortages and price rises.
“We have said repeatedly that for farm businesses it is about having the full range of skills needed - from pickers and packers to meat processors and vets - if we are to continue to deliver high-quality, affordable food for the public,” said NFU president Minette Batters.
“Ruling out a temporary, low-skilled route for migration in just 10 months’ time will be disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people,” said UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls.
“These proposals will cut off future growth and expansion and deter investment in Britain’s high streets. It will lead to reduced levels of service for customers and business closures.
“Hospitality is already facing an acute labour shortage, despite investing significantly in skills, training and increasing apprenticeships for the domestic workforce.
“We are facing record low levels of unemployment, a dip in young people entering the labour market and have the highest vacancy levels of any sector.”