MILTON KEYNES, England (Reuters) - Britons who voted for Brexit in the hope of slashing immigration seem set for disappointment. In the farming and food industries at least, any exodus of Polish and Romanian workers may simply be followed by arrivals of Ukrainians and Filipinos.
From dairy farms to abattoirs, employers say not enough Britons have an appetite for milking cows before dawn or disembowelling pig carcasses - jobs often performed by workers from the poorer, eastern member states of the European Union.
With unemployment at a four-decade low of 4.3 percent, even Brexit supporters acknowledge the industries will need some migrant workers after Britain leaves the EU in 2019, ending the automatic right of the bloc’s citizens to work in the country.
Employers praise eastern European staff for their skills and work ethic. “They are a massively valuable part of our workforce and a massively valuable part of the food industry overall,” said Adam Couch, chief executive of Cranswick plc, a meat processing group founded by pig farmers.
Food and drink is the largest UK manufacturing sector, with a turnover of 110 billion pounds ($147 billion) in 2015, government figures show. Much of it depends heavily on staff from elsewhere in the EU, mainly the post-communist east.
For example, the British Meat Processors Association says 63 percent of workers in the sector come from other EU countries and in some plants it can be as high as 80 percent.
The proportion has risen partly due to increased demand for more labor intensive products such as boneless meat. Association members have found it impossible to recruit the additional employees needed from Britain, the BMPA says.
Pro-Brexit campaigners say Britain needs to reduce its reliance on EU workers. “Our sights should be firmly set on raising the skill level of our own domestic workers, employing domestic whenever we possibly can and automating,” said Owen Paterson, a member of parliament for the ruling Conservatives.
But Paterson, who as a former Environment Secretary was responsible for UK agricultural policy from 2012-14, added: “Where there is a clear shortage and no technological solution, by all means bring in labor but the good news is we wouldn’t be limited to the EU. We will have the whole world to choose from.”
On the meat production line, Romanian Dumidru Voicu explained the attractions of working at Cranswick’s plant in Milton Keynes, a town northwest of London.
“I just want to do something with my life, save some money and make my own business. The money for a week here is the money for a month in Romania,” said Voicu, who arrived in the country about the time that Britons voted to leave the EU in June last year.
An estimated 27,000 permanent staff from elsewhere in the EU worked in British agriculture last year, House of Commons staff noted in a briefing paper for members of parliament. This figure is swollen at times by around 75,000 seasonal workers.
A further 116,000 EU citizens worked in food manufacturing. The Food and Drink Federation predicts the sector, which employs about 400,000 people, needs to recruit another 140,000 by 2024.
The government, which wants to reduce immigration sharply, has yet to announce its post-Brexit policy but farm minister George Eustice has recognized employers’ concerns. “Leaving the EU and establishing controlled migration does not mean closing off all immigration,” he told parliament in earlier this year.
However, a government document leaked in September showed that restrictions for all but the highest-skilled EU workers were under consideration.
Such a possibility alarms farm employers. “Without EU labor there will be no British pig industry as we know it,” said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association.
British farmers have relied on foreign labor for a long time, at least around harvest time. A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was introduced shortly after World War Two.
The government ended it in 2013 before Romanians and Bulgarians won the automatic right to work in Britain, arguing that there were now enough EU workers to fill farm vacancies.
With EU citizens to lose that right on Brexit, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) wants the scheme - or something similar - reinstated. This may mean going back to the time when people from beyond eastern Europe filled farm jobs.
Michael Oakes, chairman of the dairy board at the NFU, says older colleagues remember when people from countries such as the Philippines worked on British farms.
“There are other countries in the world that would help to solve the problem but at the moment because they are not within the EU they are not necessarily able to come in and work.”
Filipinos already work on New Zealand farms but such an idea could prove politically difficult in Britain as the pro-Brexit side fought the referendum on promises to curb immigration.
Many of the 17 million Britons who voted to leave are likely to be unhappy if they find eastern Europeans simply replaced by non-EU workers such as Filipinos or Ukrainians.
“Perhaps we need to broaden out the opportunities but a lot of people voted for Brexit because of immigration reasons, so it is a tricky one for the government,” said Oakes.
Any new seasonal scheme could still recruit in the EU, but might be forced to widen its scope to get the required numbers.
Net migration to the UK fell to 230,000 in the year to June, far from the government’s ambition of arrivals “in the tens of thousands”. Still, EU citizens accounted for three quarters of the 106,000 drop, the Office for National Statistics reported.
The figures present a mixed picture, with a net 20,000 Poles leaving the country in 2016 but 50,000 Romanians arriving.
But some eastern Europeans say they feel less welcome since the referendum and resent the negative attitude of some Britons.
“I was quite upset. Why do you have a problem with me if I am coming to take a job you don’t want and I am paying tax?” said Zoltan Peter, who came to England in 2009 to work on a dairy farm in western England, initially leaving his wife and baby daughter at home in Romania.
Peter now works as a regional manager for LKL, a firm which recruits workers to the dairy industry, but says the early years were not easy. “I didn’t catch my daughter starting to talk, but you sometimes you make sacrifices and eastern European people are making sacrifices,” he told Reuters.
A drop in sterling since the referendum has also made Britain less attractive for farm workers who earn at least 7.20 pounds an hour. That was worth 41 Polish zlotys before the vote but now it buys only 34.
Part of the answer may lie in a drive to recruit and train more British workers, despite Peter’s doubts.
Oakes said he needed people prepared to work long, unsocial hours often in cold, wet conditions. Milking on his farm starts at 4.30 am and the day does not end until 8 pm. “It is an early start or a late finish, and occasionally on bad days you might have to do both,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ana Ionova; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Stamp