Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: Brexit brings concerns about workers to fore

By Samantha McCaughren

The focus of much of the Brexit chatter in business circles unfortunately continues to centre on uncertainty. One leading business figure told me last week that the various outcomes of Brexit could have wildly differing implications for his business, swinging from demand that his business would be unable to cope with, to logistical problems which could choke key parts of his company's operations.

Few contingency plans would have expected that so much would still be unknown in April 2019.

But there are other issues weighing on the minds of international employers, including the challenge of reliable workers - which is in its own way linked to both Brexit and the shift to the right in US politics.

The latest large Irish company to flag labour problems is IPL Plastics, formerly One51 and now listed in Canada.

Chief financial officer Pat Dalton gave an insight into the challenge of its workforce to analysts in a recent conference call.

"During 2018, labour was a significant headwind. And it was headwind from a number of perspectives: firstly, in terms of the availability of labour; secondly, in terms of the cost inflation associated with payrolls generally," he said.

"It impacted on our operating efficiencies, so in other words, whether labour shows up for the shift or not, and whether you suffer additional downtime because of that."

Sign In

The problems are in both Canada and North America it seems, compounded by high employment levels.

Mr Dalton joins a number of Irish executives who have flagged concerns about the labour force both in the US and in the UK.

Last year, Paul Coulson of packaging giant Ardagh Group told of how it had encountered problems with the workforce in the US.

"It's difficult to get people who are drug-free, etc," he said.

And Aryzta lost 800 workers in the US in a 2017 immigration crackdown at its Cloverhill facility, which it later sold off.

Greencore's Patrick Coveney has previously warned that the British food industry would not function without migrant workers. Hard-working, low-paid immigrant workers have played a vital role in several industries but this has been lost in the current political mood.

Several companies are seeing the effects first-hand. Expect to see more and more investment in automation as a result.

n News of the arrival of Cevian on the share register at CRH broke two months ago and perhaps unsurprisingly has gone quiet ever since.

The Swedish activist shareholder is known for taking a long view on its investments and has yet to reveal its big plan to squeeze value out of CRH, which owns construction materials firm Northstone (NI) in Dunmurry.

But recent developments in the US suggest that investor appetite for the break-up of large building materials groups could be forming.

Back in Europe, market insiders are of differing views as to whether or not CRH will come under the pressure to chip away blocks of its business.

One take on the opportunity which Cevian sees at CRH is all about a break-up story. CRH could opt for a partial listing of its North American business in New York.

Belfast Telegraph