“We’ll have to consider automation”
Andrew Keeble, managing director of Heck Sausages, has every right to be concerned about the impact of Brexit on his workforce. Around 60 of his 101-strong workforce come from Eastern Europe. “We employ lots of families from countries such as Latvia and Lithuania; they’ve got kids in local schools and they contribute to the local economy,” he says. “As a company, we’re good to them, offering things like free lunches, taxis to work and a 5 per cent profit share in the business.”
While he hopes that incentives such as these will reassure EU migrant workers that his factories will remain an attractive place to work, the business is also looking at automating some factory tasks. “That would have happened anyway – we’re likely to have a minimum wage of £10 an hour in a few years, so we have to look at ways we can remain competitive,” says Keeble.
Attracting UK workers can be a challenge. “No one applies, or if they do they come and don’t last. We pay above the minimum wage and there are lots of perks, but they call in sick or don’t come in. We had one well-paid night cleaning shift and there was simply no one to do it,” he adds. One strategy has been to raise wage rates from £7.85 to £8.50 an hour before April’s increase in the minimum wage, so the company can get ahead of competitors. “This is about a £140,000 cost to our business, but we want people to care about their jobs,” he says.
“Local jobseekers look for the easier options”
Johnsons of Whixley is a plant nursery in Kirk Hammerton, North Yorkshire, and employs around 100 people, rising to 150 or more seasonally. It relies heavily on agency workers, many of them from the EU, during peak periods.
Managing director Graham Richardson has already witnessed a “tightening” of available workers from the EU and, in an area of near-full employment, he says, it’s difficult to find local staff to replace them. “Our business is a manual, all-weather profession and jobseekers see easier options,” he says. And while automation is an option many agricultural producers are considering, Johnsons would not be able to automate to such an extent. “Our work is difficult to automate because we offer such a wide range of variants – you’d struggle to develop something that would automate dealing with such a range,” adds Richardson.
Managers work with existing EU staff to reassure them and are holding workshops to offer more information on securing residency. A number of junior managers who came from the EU are in the process of obtaining citizenship, and there is a training and recruitment focus group whose remit is to focus on potential opportunities to build up skills. Richardson says: “We attend job and careers fairs and have introduced a successful ‘rising stars’ training programme. But we have also unsuccessfully taken on apprentices on numerous occasions.”
Johnsons’ employees have also experienced a marked dent in confidence. “There is a distinct feeling of unease based on the unknown,” says Richardson. “The other issue is the devaluation of the money we’re able to pay and what they send home. We have to remember that they’re not just here because they like the UK – it’s a practical response to a difficult situation at home, and I worry that we’re just replacing that with another difficult situation.”
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