Key industries across Northern Ireland face severe disruption and potential job losses in the wake of Brexit leading figures from across the business world have claimed.
In an unprecedented move, 21 business groups have written to Prime Minister Theresa May calling for action as the province feels the impact of Brexit even before the UK leaves the EU.
The letter, also sent to Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley warns that shrinking numbers of European workers in Northern Ireland are creating severe labour shortages already critically affecting many businesses’ daily operations.
It calls for an urgent solution to the problem which the group claims could lead to the demise of key industries unless addresssed as a matter of urgency.
“Since the Brexit referendum, the number of European Economic Area (EEA) workers in Northern Ireland has fallen by 26%, adding further pressure to an already tight labour market,” said Trevor Lockhart, chair of the CBI, on behalf of the 21 signatory organisations.
“This is having a major impact on industry here, affecting in particular the food processing, hospitality, and construction sectors.
“We need access to non-EU workers to fill low-skilled positions as an immediate priority, as well as a strategy to address gaps in higher-skills across various sectors.”
Without adequate provisions in place, Mr Lockhart said the growing division between the position in the province and the Irish Republic would only worsen with disastrous consequences to the local labour market.
Facing similar pressures, the Republic of Ireland has already introduced a sector-based scheme which grants visas to non-EU workers.
Without a similar approach, he said local businesses will face an even greater competitive threat, “particularly as many sectors such as agri-food now work increasingly on an all-island basis”.
“This means that if labour is not available in Northern Ireland, operations here could be scaled back, enabling further expansion in the Republic of Ireland where non-EU labour is available.
“This would also threaten the thousands of indigenous supporting jobs which are co-dependent on migrant labour.”
Stressing the critical juncture that Northern Ireland is currently at in relation to Brexit negotiations, Mr Lockhart added: “We need the UK and the EU to reach a Brexit deal.
“That is crucial to Northern Ireland’s economic success and viability.
“One of the undertakings identified in the December 2017 joint report by the UK and EU Brexit negotiators was to ensure that any deal reached would not disadvantage Northern Ireland’s economic interest.
“That was a commitment. However, there is now grave concern within the business community that in a ‘No-deal’ situation, the UK government would not be bound by these special undertakings, and Northern Ireland would suffer as a result.”