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Let our food and drink producers lead the way to new export markets

By: Justin Wright Date: 11 October 2017
Category: Press Release,Food and drink

Justin Wright, who heads up Lovewell Blake’s specialist food and drink team, says we must not hold back the food and drink sector as it seeks to find new overseas markets.

If the media reports are to be believed, the Government is planning to restrict numbers of overseas workers and, in particular, ‘lower-skilled’ workers. This will be ringing alarm bells amongst some of our food and drink producers. A survey shows that the sector is looking to create nearly 100,000 new jobs over the next five years – ironically, to cope with a new optimism about exports, despite the uncertainty over Brexit.

A report from Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking shows that nearly seven in ten firms in the food and drink sector are investing to secure new overseas markets, with Europe - currently by far the UK’s biggest export market - remaining the most favoured place to target new customers.

This, despite the fact that more than half of all food producers cite regulatory issues, political uncertainty and international regulation as potential barriers, means that we could be seeing an emerging acceptance of the Brexit reality and a desire to get on with the job in hand.

To put this in context, food and drink exports already stand at more than £20 billion a year, and that figure is rising, driven mainly by the weakness of sterling but, also by a growing worldwide reputation for our products.

Clearly, that upwards trajectory should be supported and protected during these uncertain times. This may be the case of Brexit actually accelerating business decisions and promoting growth, but time will tell.

Labour is naturally one of the key drivers in ensuring growth within the sector. Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD) points out that 36 per cent of workers in the sector are from overseas and that, without access to EU workers, “we could potentially face a crisis in labour supply, which could damage productivity.”

Around a fifth of all EU workers in the UK work in food and drink production – that’s 400,000 people. Many of these people fall into the government’s ‘unskilled workers’ category.

Actually, that is an unnecessarily pejorative term because the people who bring in the harvest are just as essential to our ability to feed ourselves as a country and grow our export markets as those with specialist skills.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of ‘skilled or unskilled’ at all; rather ‘essential or non-essential’. After all, your highest-qualified rocket scientist still needs to eat.

However you categorise them, if the labour market is restricted, then that resource will need to be found from the domestic workforce. Shortages in labour and productivity could have the potential of slowing down the sector’s growth and undermining those precious exports.

Food and drink producers are standing up to be counted in the forefront of the UK’s vital effort to find new export markets in the post-Brexit world. The last thing we should be doing is forcing them to rein in those ambitions at such a crucial time. Whatever your views on Brexit, it is vital that the Government develops a policy that allows UK businesses access to essential foreign workers where appropriate.
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