The comments were made as defence secretary Michael Fallon came under flak for claiming British towns were being “swamped” by immigrants, with their residents “under siege”.
But they also coincided with support for employing overseas nationals in the agrifood sector from environment secretary Liz Truss and comments by former home secretary Ken Clarke that restricting migration from the continent would threaten the UK economy.
While the number of migrants working in the sector is difficult to determine precisely, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) agreed that migrants made a vital contribution to the sector’s output.
Temporary and short notice labour
The FDF said manufacturers relied on meeting peak seasonal product demand with temporary and short notice labour placements across the UK.
“In some cases a shortage of available solutions creates opportunities for migrant workers to fulfil a range of roles and make a valuable contribution to the industry,” an FDF spokeswoman said. “As responsible employers, food and drink manufacturers recognise their obligations to all employees including our vital migrant and seasonal workers.”
The food sector must secure a strong workforce and sustainable talent pipeline to secure inward investment and sustainable growth, she added. “People are able to enter our industry through many different routes and from a variety of backgrounds. We welcome this flexible approach to supporting economic growth.”
Clarico, a logistics, recruitment and training provider, said it was proud 40% of its workforce were migrant workers. Its director Jamie Town said that without migrant workers, the UK food production sector would “fall down as factories would simply not be able operate”.
That was largely due to a more positive work ethic from overseas nationals compared with the native workforce, he said.
Manufacturers such as R&R Ice Cream and Mash Direct have long praised the contribution of their workers from overseas.
Struggle to source the skills
The Confederation of British Industry said businesses would struggle to source the skills that they needed without the open European market and the visa system. “Free movement within the EU boosts the attraction of investing in the UK, creates jobs and offers firms here real benefits in working with our biggest trading partners,” a spokesman said.
Last month veteran Clarke urged the prime minister not to “compete with bigotry” in implementing tighter immigration controls in a bid to placate supporters of the UK Independence Party.
“We must get back some common sense,” Clarke told The Daily Telegraph. “There isn’t a politician who isn’t in favour of controlling immigration. What we mustn’t do is starting competing with ignorance and bigotry. What we mustn’t do is start doing damage to our economy by imposing restrictions on people we need to come here in an international economy.”
Meanwhile, a new study from University College London (UCL) published today (November 5) confirmed migrants to the UK contributed more to the British economy than they claimed in benefits.
Migrants from the 10 countries which joined the EU in 2004 made a net contribution of £4.96bn more in taxes in the years to 2011 than they drew from public services.
Co-author of the study professor Christian Dustmann said: “Our new analysis draws a positive picture of the overall fiscal contribution made by recent immigrant cohorts, particularly of immigrants arriving from the EU.”
European immigrants, particularly, both from the new accession countries and the rest of the European Union, make the biggest contributions, he said.
But the campaign group Migration Watch complained about the report’s allegedly selective use of dates.
More information about the report is available here.