17/10/2017 – News / British Retail Consortium/ UK / EU / Retail / Immigration

Study highlights threat to UK retail from lack of certainty for EU workers

Without swift action to provide certainty for people from EU working in the UK and a new immigration system fit for the future, consumers could pay the price, according to a new report The People Roadmap published this week by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).


170,000 people from the EU work directly in the retail space, which accounts for six per cent of the industry’s UK workforce. In some regions of the country and different areas of the industry this is much higher – over a quarter in warehousing and distribution, for example.


The latest report in the BRC’s ‘A Fair Brexit for Consumers’ series illustrates how the lack of certainty about the future status of EU colleagues and the UK’s future relationship with the EU is driving workforce changes that have the potential to impact consumer choice and experience.


The new data shows that 56 per cent of retailers surveyed revealed that their EU colleagues are concerned about their right to remain in the UK, while 22 per cent reported that people from the EU have already left their UK workforce.


“With Theresa May’s policy to create a 'hostile environment for immigrants', it is unsurprising that EU nationals are returning to the continent,” remarks Harminder Singh, an Associate Fellow in the Strategy & International Business at Warwick Business School, who has also consulted for the International Labour Organisation and written extensively on Brexit. “Indeed, this broad brush term does not differentiate between anyone that might be considered 'non-British' so the UK may also have an additional problem of non-EU nationals choosing not to apply for jobs in the UK.


“It is a good point to remind ourselves that the UK has virtually full employment, and the consequence is that there are few 'British' employees available to fill the positions made vacant. In an environment of full employment who will there be to fill these positions?” he continues.


“It also highlights that migrants were not coming to access benefits, they were coming for work – the kind of work that leads to lower prices and better customer service.”


Driven by technology and the changing needs of consumers, the retail industry is undergoing a transformation that increases the need for new and different skills. For retailers to continue to operate competitively, the Government must recognise the spectrum of skills and experiences that currently contribute to the success of the industry.


16 months on and still no security for workers


 “The UK’s decision to leave the EU has created uncertainty, not only for business, but for the people from the EU they employ,” stressed Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive of the BRC. “These are real people with families, livelihoods and homes in this country. It is not right that 16 months after the referendum these people still don’t have the security they need to continue their lives. And from our data it is clear that unless we have the right structures in place to support retailers attract, recruit and retain workers, consumers will soon start to see and feel an impact as they shop.”


First and foremost, the Government must provide certainty for the people from the EU who are already living and working here, said Ms Dickinson. “The offer of settled status is positive but colleagues need to know the practicalities of acquiring this: how you apply, what it costs and when the cut-off date is.


“Secondly, we recognise that free movement from the EU is coming to an end, and that this is a ‘reset’ moment. So, at a time when the retail industry is in the midst of a transformation that is changing the very nature of retail jobs, we need a demand-led and simple alternative,” she continued. “Simple for employees and employers alike, and based on consumer need – not political rhetoric.”


Ms Dickinson added that, regarding the UK’s domestic workforce, the government should work with the retail sector to invest in the skills and talent required for the future. “In particular, for the Apprenticeship system to be part of that investment, retailers need additional flexibility to target Levy funds into on-going high levels of customer service, rather than it being written off as just another tax.”


Research illustrates importance of EU migrant workforce


Welcoming the report, John Hannett, General Secretary from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) said that BRC was moving the debate on to try to tackle the real issues behind the headlines. “The research in the report illustrates how important the EU migrant workforce is to retail, especially the distribution and logistics that supports the sector,” he observed.


“I am pleased that the report is recommending that EU migrant workers already working in the retail and distribution sectors should be guaranteed their rights to continue to work and live in the UK.  Many of these workers, who are members of Usdaw and other trade unions, have settled and made their homes here and must be allowed to stay and carry on working in the UK,” he stressed.


“The retail and distribution sector is a big employer of labour. We agree with the BRC that there needs to be a focus on developing the skills of the UK workforce to meet the challenges ahead.  But, going forward, the sector will continue to need EU workers to come and work in retail, distribution and food manufacturing.  We need a debate, based on facts and evidence, as to what that post-Brexit retail sector will look like. I welcome the BRC report as a very positive contribution to that debate.”


Access the full report here:  https://brc.org.uk/media/195628/people-roadmap-report.pdf

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