== John Foster is MD of Fosters Bakery, ==
based in Barnsley, south Yorkshire, which supplies fresh and frozen products to major retailers, airlines and caterers
The time bomb is ticking! UK plc has been blessed over the past few years with an influx of workers from Eastern Europe. My experience is of hard-working people, willing, flexible, better skilled, polite and respectful. But the problem with migrant labour is that it is, well, migrant. As quickly as people have migrated to the UK, they can migrate out.
We are already seeing the first fizz in the fuse, with an exodus of people back to Eastern Europe. These people travel thousands of miles to seek a better way of life, earn more money and often send a good percentage back home to the family. Since last September, the value of the pounds being sent home has devalued against the Euro and other European currencies. At the same time, the economies of the new EU countries are improving and this will continue, courtesy of the European political machine, until all our economies roughly align. Squeeze this with the increased costs of living here and the UK gets less and less attractive for EU migrant workers.
But this slow burn of migration home will explode in less than three years’ time - in 2011, the pool of migrant workers may have dried up and many good staff gone. Currently, most EU countries including France and Germany are not open to the newest Eastern Europeans - just as the UK is not currently open to people from Romania and Bulgaria. We would have seen far fewer Eastern Europeans anyway, had they been free to work anywhere in the EU, and, from 2011, they will indeed be free to work in any EU country. I predict that many will go home or closer to home. You will have to recruit again from the indigenous workforce, from which you have been disengaged for years.
The quivering UK economy is raising unemployment and so there will be people wanting work. The questions are around work ethic and baking skills.
The proportion of Eastern Europeans in our business at Fosters is small, but we have a strategy. Firstly, we welcome and respect all people regardless of their ethnicity; we are trying to create a bakery where people want to stay long-term. We sell the food industry as a career at every opportunity, from working with ex-offenders to IB claimants and people with learning disabilities. We engage with young people and have partnerships with schools, colleges and universities. We signed the skills pledge, making NVQ Level 2 the minimum qualification for our people, and we want higher. We invest big in training and it will get even better. Our pay rates are on ability/qualifications regardless of age (or youth) and we are investing in flexible automation to remove the most unskilled and repetitive tasks. I don’t know if we are bomb-proof yet, but we at least have a tin hat! Mrs Foster says I worry too much!