Brexit: Northern Ireland migrant workers need certainty for future: economist
The post-Brexit future of almost 10,000 EU workers in Northern Ireland's food and drinks processing sector must be protected to ensure jobs are not lost, an economist has claimed.
John Simpson sounded the warning as figures from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs showed that 40% of workers in the food sector here come from EU nations outside the UK and Ireland.
In 2017 there was an estimated 24,328 employees working in the food and drinks processing sector.
Of these, an estimated 40%, or 9,767, were citizens of other EU countries (excluding the UK and Ireland), and 3.5%, or 850, were from non-EU countries.
Of the companies that responded to the survey, 70% indicated that other EU workers were at some level important to the functioning of their business, and 44% said they were very important.
When asked how their business would adapt if a future UK government placed significant restrictions on the recruitment of migrant labour, the most favoured option was to recruit more workers from the UK and the Republic.
The next most popular responses were to do nothing and invest in capital, followed by moving production and reducing production.
However, Mr Simpson described the issue as a "very problematic area".
"At the moment we are in danger of losing jobs because we are talking about Brexit all the time," he said.
"The more we talk about Brexit means we are not sure what the end agreement is going to be.
"We have a common travel area in terms of workers. There needs to be an interpretation of this area.
"British and Irish citizens have no problem, but with regard to a Portuguese citizen, for example, living in Ireland, does the common travel area allow that person to travel to Northern Ireland to work? We have not seen any answers as to whether it applies to all British or Irish residents no matter where they originally come from.
"It is important that the negotiators, British and Irish, give clear answers to this as soon as possible.
"We spend all our time talking about Brexit, but we have to get some answers."
From 2001 there has been continued growth in the number of other EU workers employed in the food and drinks processing sector.
By 2011 other EU workers made up over 20% of total workers in this sector.
The majority of these employees are process, plant and machine operatives.
Last year fruit and vegetables and the meat sector had the highest proportion of other EU workers.
In 2016 it was estimated that £209m worth of trade was transported through the Republic to England, Scotland and Wales.
This figure accounted for an estimated 9.2% of sales in 2016 to Britain.
The contribution of migrant workers was noted by director general of the CBI Carolyn Fairburn during a visit to Belfast to address Northern Ireland's business leaders.
She called for the right decisions to be made within the next two months.
The CBI chief stressed that the common travel area must be maintained and that the rights of migrant workers must also be protected.
Mrs Fairburn further underlined the need for central government to understand what it is like "to be a business operating across the border".
"This is absolutely essential," she said.