Some of Northern Ireland’s biggest agri-food firms have said they must retain access to EU workers after Brexit as a new report claims more than one-third of companies would become “unviable” if restrictions were imposed.
A UK-wide report by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said 36% of firms in the industry’s £110bn supply chain would see their business models fail if they could not hire EU nationals.
Chicken giant Moy Park, which employs hundreds of workers from elsewhere in the EU, said “like many businesses in the agri-food industry, we have expressed the need to ensure we continue to have both access to markets and the people to perform the roles”.
“Although there may be future changes to the environment in which we operate, we are confident that we have a robust business that can continue to thrive and grow,” it added.
Craigavon-based Moy Park, which has sites across the UK and Ireland, now turns over £1.44bn.
Supported by trade bodies throughout the food, drink and farming industry, the study said 17% of firms would shift their operations overseas in response to a block on EU workers.
And Stephen Cameron, group commercial director of Northern Ireland dairy company Dale Farm, said: “Some 22% of Dale Farm’s workforce comes from other areas of the EU.
“It will be crucial to protect this valuable element of our employee base and ensure we continue to offer a competitive package as a major local employer.
“We continue to monitor the Brexit situation closely and will do all we can to future-proof our business on behalf of our farmers.”
An Ulster Farmers’ Union spokeswoman said “it identifies labour as a priority area needing addressed by Government as the UK plans its exit from the EU”.
Michael Bell, executive director of Northern Ireland Food and Drink, said the body agreed with the study’s findings, and said the impact will be greater in the Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. Food and drink manufacturing is 16% of the private sector, in the UK, whereas it is 25% in Northern Ireland, he said.
“The UK’s position and the political statements made are worrying people and we’re seeing less people [workers] coming in, and more people going home,” Mr Bell said.
But he said he hasn’t heard of any shift in workers from Northern Ireland to the Republic at this stage
There are two million EU nationals within the UK economy.