Chris Moses: Where will the workers come from?

Regardless of the outcome of the general election, one outcome, which appears inevitable, is a significant reduction in the number of EU migrant workers available for Lincolnshire businesses.

Many employers in the county are finding that workers are already taking matters in their own hands, and not waiting to see what sort of deal Brexit creates.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of EU migrants entering the UK fell for the first time at the end of 2016, and the net figures show more people leaving than moving here.

As a consequence many employers are struggling to find workers, and cannot rely anymore on a source of labour which they have become increasing reliant upon.

In 2006, EU workers made up 3% of the UK workforce, by the end of 2016 that had risen to 7% nationally, which represented a significant reliance upon EU workers.

However in 2017 the availability of these workers is falling. In Lincolnshire the effects are more profound due to the significantly high number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers needed in food production, agriculture, horticulture and hospitality.

One obvious question that many politicians and others have asked since the 2016 referendum is why can’t we get British people to do these jobs? After all, there are currently 2.2 million EU workers in the UK, and 1.69 million unemployed.

As simple a solution as this sounds, there are a number of major impediments to it.

Firstly, geography. Lincolnshire, along with other rural areas which use high numbers of EU workers, have levels of unemployment which are below the national average, which means that there is a shortage of local workers to fill these jobs.

Secondly, wages. Most businesses that rely on EU workers operate to tight profit margins.

The main supermarkets who sell Lincolnshire’s agricultural produce are engaged in an ongoing price war, and have little slack to pay their suppliers. Consequently, wage rates in agriculture and food production are close to national minimum rates.

EU workers, who are planning to return home to less expensive countries, are happier to take these rates of pay compared to UK nationals, who may be looking to get on the housing ladder and keep abreast of rising inflation.

Thirdly, demographics. The average age of Lincolnshire’s population is increasing and physically demanding work in hotels, restaurants, farms and food factories may simply not be appropriate.

Plans to address the situation appear to be in short supply. Government think tank, The Resolution Foundation, have suggested that agricultural employers may invest in greater automation and machinery.

Furthermore the Apprenticeship Levy and forthcoming T Level vocational qualifications, plan to provide Employers with the skills and qualified people they need; however, there is concern that this may not be quick enough.

The government has also suggested that employers need to look at groups of potential recruits who have traditionally been overlooked, such as women returners, people with caring responsibilities, ex-offenders, people with disabilities and the long term unemployed.

Clearly, such groups would need support to help them into employment, and this would include greater legislation to increase flexible working rights, as well as widen the scope of discrimination to address current marginalisation of such groups.