The head of a top Northern Ireland salad processor has called for more certainty on Brexit as he said his EU workers were 'deeply concerned' for their future.
John McCann, founder of Willowbrook Foods in Co Down, said workers should be offered 'dual citizenship' to allow them to remain here after Brexit.
He said many of his top staff were from outside the UK: "Currently, at least 20 people within my workforce are from the wider EU, and have progressed to senior level/management in the areas of production, technical and innovation."
John McCann MBE said many UK firms were “still in the dark” over what Brexit will mean for their exports and workforces.
His firm employs between 350 and 400 people, including more than 200 EU migrants.
He added: “These people are highly valued by Willowbrook Foods, we have invested in their training and development.
“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.”
But staffing is not the only worry for the Co Down firm — just 10% of Willowbrook’s produce is sold in Northern Ireland, with 50% destined for Great Britain, and the remaining 40% exported to the EU through the Republic of Ireland. Any change to EU trade could hit the company hard.
“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.
“This fresh produce, which is in high demand with customers across the UK and Republic of Ireland, 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 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.
“We need measures such as dual citizenship that would allow these employees to remain an integral part of the UK food industry. There’s a lot of misinformation about foreign workers ‘taking our jobs’, but I can assure you that that’s not the case in Northern Ireland’s food industry.”
Louise McAloon, partner at Worthingtons Solicitors, said UK immigration law would come into force if no agreement was made. She said: “Whilst no one can predict the outcome of the negotiations, it has been widely anticipated that existing EU nationals employed in the UK would retain the right to remain.
“If the retention of existing EU workers or wider free movement of incoming EU workers doesn’t form part of that negotiated settlement between the UK and the EU, then potentially dual citizenship could present a solution to plug the gaps.”