Belfast Telegraph

Why we must have post-Brexit clarity

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By John McCann, managing director of Willowbrook Foods

As a fresh food producer that has experienced double digit growth in the last number of years and a significant increase in our workforce, I'm very concerned about the level of uncertainty that has been created around Brexit on a number of levels. 

While UK sales are a significant part of the Willowbrook Foods business, and continue to grow, we have concerns around the uncertainty regarding EU worker employment that is not only impacting us but the entire food industry in particular. 

Being based in Northern Ireland, with a level of our business also undertaken with Republic of Ireland retailers and food service companies, the issue of the EU border trade is also of prime concern.

The introduction of border restrictions and tariffs has the potential to impact on food service companies like ours who regularly transport fresh food in chilled lorries throughout Ireland. Clarity on this critical issue would provide the right conditions for our continued growth, as uncertainty in any business environment is deeply unhelpful.

We are continuing to grow in the UK and Ireland and currently export 80% of our produce so at this stage we are not seeing a significant impact on business operations.

However, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming months and ongoing uncertainty in any economy will have a medium to long-term impact.

We are continually monitoring the Brexit situation and doing what we can to positively influence outcomes, including speaking with politicians regularly and keeping our loyal 350-strong workforce and partners informed and updated.

I am working very hard to put these matters to politicians both at UK and regional level. I know that many within the food industry are doing the same.

We certainly need politicians in negotiations to recognise the importance of the UK's agri-food sector, its reliance on a major source of EU workers and thriving cross-border trade with countries like the Republic of Ireland. 

As a growing fresh produce business, we would like reassurance that border trade will be properly considered between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

We currently provide food service companies and retailers in the Republic of Ireland with fresh chilled produce. This involves transport of the chilled products in 40ft lorries. This fresh produce, which is in high demand with customers across the UK and the Republic, relies on brisk, fast-moving transport and any border delays could have an impact.

The Northern Ireland agri-food industry would like reassurances from ministers that the free movement will continue between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland post-Brexit.

Any fresh produce company relies on fast-moving transportation, therefore while we invest heavily in chilled transportation for our customer base across the UK and Republic of Ireland, like most in the industry, any significant delays could of course prove a major challenge.

But the product is only part of what concerns me, as successful businesses are based on people.

As a proud employer of EU workers, including many of our excellent managers and food service workers who have been with the company and settled in the UK for many years, I am concerned about how they are currently feeling in the absence of any clarity on what their status will be during Brexit negotiations and beyond.

Currently, at least 20 people within my workforce are from the wider EU, they have been with the company up to 10 years and have progressed to senior level/management in the areas of production, technical and innovation.

These people are highly valued by Willowbrook Foods - we have invested in their training and development.

In addition, they have really invested in building their lives in NI with their families.

Our politicians need to give reassurance that these employees will be able to work in my business in the future and certainly within the next five to 10 years.

We and they need to know how Brexit might affect their employment rights.

It would be a deep concern to all within the food industry if this particular issue was not resolved by the government in a timely manner.

We need measures such as dual citizenship that would allow these employees to remain an integral part of the UK food industry.

While this is an issue in the industry, the domestic market is strong and our UK sales are still growing so we are not seeing a significant impact on our business operations.

However, it is important that we continue to monitor the situation, speak with politicians and communicate with our workforce and partners to ensure future growth across the business.

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