In a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May the 21 organisations, which include the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association, NI Pork and Bacon Forum and Ulster Farmers’ Union, argued that shrinking numbers of European workers in Northern Ireland are creating severe labour shortages which are critically affecting many businesses’ daily operations.
They have requested an urgent solution to the problem which they claim could lead to the demise of many key industries.
“Since the Brexit referendum, the number of European Economic Area (EEA) workers in Northern Ireland has fallen by 26%, adding further pressure to an already tight labour market,” said chair of CBI NI, Trevor Lockhart, speaking on behalf of the 21 signatory organisations.
“This is having a major impact on industry here, affecting in particular the food processing, hospitality, and construction sectors. We need access to non-EU workers to fill low-skilled positions as an immediate priority, as well as a strategy to address gaps in higher-skills across various sectors.”
The organisations have asked the Home Office to recognise the need for regional flexibility to resolve the challenges faced by the sector.
“Facing similar pressures, the Republic of Ireland has already introduced a sector-based scheme which grants visas to non-EU workers,” he said.
“Without a similar approach for Northern Ireland, local businesses will face an even greater competitive threat, particularly as many sectors such as agri-food now work increasingly on an all-island basis.
“This means that if labour is not available in Northern Ireland, operations here could be scaled back, enabling further expansion in the Republic of Ireland where non-EU labour is available. This would also threaten the thousands of indigenous supporting jobs which are co-dependent on migrant labour.”
He said that the UK and EU need to reach a Brexit deal.
One of the undertakings identified in the December 2017 joint report by the UK and EU Brexit negotiators was to ensure that any deal reached would not disadvantage Northern Ireland’s economic interest, he said.
“That was a commitment. However, there is now grave concern within the business community that in a ‘No-deal’ situation, the UK government would not be bound by these special undertakings, and Northern Ireland would suffer as a result.”
However, Northern Ireland is not the only country to raise concerns about the impact of Brexit.
Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) – gave evidence before a committee of Assembly Members this week raising concern about the impact on the sheep industry.
HCC chief executive Gwyn Howells stressed the key role that tariff-free exports play for the industry, particularly for the sheep sector where a third of PGI Welsh Lamb is currently exported to Europe.
He also highlighted the need for any imported food to reach the same high welfare and environmental standards to which Welsh farmers adhere.
“The likely impact of EU Exit is varied across different parts of the red meat industry,” said Mr. Howells. “However a no-deal Brexit would cause major disruption, particularly for the sheep sector, where Wales is a major net exporter.”