Retailers and manufacturers have criticised the lack of certainty surrounding Brexit, which has resulted in some European Union workers leaving the UK, causing a skills gap and workforce shortage.
Findings from the British Retail Consortium’s The People Roadmap report showed EU nationals employed at 56% of UK retailers are concerned about their right to remain following Brexit, while almost a quarter (22%) of retailers reported that employees from the EU have already left their UK workforce.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said the knock-on impact of a reduction in availability of skills could impact consumer choice and experience.
Dune founder and executive chairman Daniel Rubin agreed: “We’re in an industry where we employ a lot of EU staff and uncertainty about their status and how readily we can get people to work in those stores and up in [our distribution centre] in Leicester is a concern. It makes people reluctant to invest in the country, which also has a negative impact.”
The managing director at one high street multiple, who estimated 10% to 15% of its workforce were EU nationals, said: “I’m not surprised more retailers are seeing employees from the EU leave their businesses, given the nature of what’s happening [politically].
“While we are a bit more insulated as we have a lot of students that work for us on three-to-four-year contracts on the shop floor, it is harder for our stores in central London in particular, where there are more EU staff. It’s definitely a headwind. On our end, the key is to give our employees opportunities for career progression. Retailers have got to offer better and more credible places for people to work.”
On the manufacturing front a shortage of skills was a primary concern for many.
“We’re hoping the [Brexit deal] brings good news, but we’ll fight to keep every single one of our workers,” said Jenny Holloway, chief executive at manufacturer Fashion Enter in North London.
“There’s definitely been a drop in net immigration, so we don’t have the succession of people there used to be. It’s worrying for growth – garment manufacturing in London is at an all-time high.”
UKFT chairman Nigel Lugg agreed: “We’re very worried about the skills we’ll lose in the industry. We need strategic thinking from the government on Brexit. While I don’t think we’ll see mass production in the UK, there is the opportunity to develop UK manufacturing – but we need the skills to do this. Everyone needs to be encouraging this, and EU nationals play a huge part in it.”
Simon Berwin, managing director at menswear supplier Berwin & Berwin, said the situation was likely to worsen: “The uncertainty over Brexit is creating is causing nervousness, and I think this will only get worse. There have already been at least two or three people at our warehouses that have gone back home, some because of an uncertain future in the UK and others from racial abuse. Stability needs to be prioritised.”
EU workers in UK retail
170,000 people from the EU work directly in retail, accounting for 6% of the industry’s UK workforce.
4% of head office retail staff in the UK are EU nationals.
26% of retail employees working in warehousing and distribution in the Midlands are from the EU.