Northern Ireland

Brexit: NI food firms express concern at impact of immigration clampdown

Declan Billington
Image caption Declan Billington, chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, was giving evidence to the House of Lords's EU select committee hearing

A clampdown on low-skilled immigration would be a "significant issue" for the Northern Ireland agri-food industry a House of Lords committee has been told.

The EU select committee is examining Brexit's impact on UK- Irish relations.

The Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association told it that 60% of workers in NI food factories are from outside the UK, mainly eastern Europe.

Its chair Declan Billington said they had "exhausted the ability to get local labour into our processing facilities".

He added that as many as 90% of seasonal agricultural workers are non-UK nationals.

'Relocate'

"Any restrictions on access to labour could restrict our ability to stand still, never mind grow."

Mr Billington said it was "not unlikely" that businesses could relocate processing facilities across the Irish border where they would have "free access to labour".

The committee also heard about fears that the food and drink industry could be exposed to extremely low cost competition as the result of post-Brexit trade deals.

Mr Billington said: "Countries like Thailand and Brazil don't have a living wage.

"Are we going to invite them into our markets and have them compete with industry we have layered policy costs on?

"One of the key challenges for government in the UK is to understand the cost of policy and, how do you create a level playing field with imports?"

However Mr Billington said that Brexit could still produce new opportunities, particularly in the market in Great Britain.

"We believe the industry can grow but it requires joined-up government and joined-up thinking.

"It can work but we those negotiating need to have the knowledge of what the end game could be for agriculture."

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