‘If all the immigrants go back, who will work in the meat factories and do the crap jobs?’

Shock in Northern Ireland as British government moves against low-skilled workers

Displayed on the window of Asta European food store in Derry are two flags: one is Lithuanian, the other is the EU flag.

The shop’s owner, Asta Kereviciene, moved to Derry from Lithuania in 2005. A young mother, chatting to Kereviciene as she makes her purchases, asks: “If all the immigrants go back, who will work in the meat factories and do the crap jobs?”

In the first quarter of 2018 there were 40,000 EU nationals from outside the UK or the Republic of Ireland working in Northern Ireland, according to the North's Department of the Economy. That figure has fallen from 54,000 since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

Kereviciene notes that while others have gone back since, few have arrived. “This year, very few people have come,” she says. “It’s not like it was in the beginning.” She describes a Polish family she knows that have moved back. Life is better in Poland now, she says, and fewer feel they have to emigrate.


Under the UK’s new points-based immigration system, which was announced on Wednesday, only skilled emigrants with 70 points are eligible to apply for a visa for the UK. To gain points, potential employees must meet certain criteria, which include the offer of a job with a minimum salary threshold of £25,600 (€30,600), and the ability to speak English.

Most to lose

The country with most to lose from the UK’s new emigration rules, she feels, is the UK itself. “If you’re in Poland, you can go to any of the EU countries – you can go to Germany, you can go to France.

“It’s not a very big loss if you can’t come here. It’s only one country you can’t go to.

“The UK leaving the EU, it’s not very good for its economic situation. Now they have cut themselves off from business, it will be very difficult for it to get better [for them].

Another customer, Patrick Healey, agrees. He says he is half-Russian and half-Irish, and adds: “It won’t be a big problem. Derry is an Irish city. The Brits can’t stop people coming in here – we have Donegal. You can easily walk across.”

In any case, he believes, there will soon be a united Ireland. “Britain has signed its own death warrant with this.”

Labour shortage

Business leaders have spoken of their concerns that the new rules will lead to a labour shortage; they already have difficulty filling jobs in many sectors, including agri-food and hospitality.

Gavin Killeen’s firm, Nuprint Technologies, makes labels for the food and drink industry in his factory in Derry. Unable to fill positions locally, he turned to Poland to fill vacancies. “Potentially that avenue I have used in the past to plug a gap is more or less going to be cut off for me,” he says.

Neil Doherty agrees. His company, Wafer NI, manufactures ice-cream cones and other ice-cream products; approximately 20 per cent of his employees are originally from eastern Europe.

“I am very concerned,” he says. If he was unable to recruit freely, he says, “it might be in our interests to set up in Donegal because the labour would be more plentiful and people could come there more easily”.

He was approached on Wednesday by three members of staff who were concerned about the implications for them. His own grandfather, he points out, was a migrant worker who travelled from Donegal to work in Scotland. “People have done this for centuries, and to stop people doing this now and to introduce these news laws, it’s almost racist, I think.”


Lilian Seenoi-Barr has similar concerns. The director of programmes with the North West Migrants Forum, she describes the new scheme as “shocking”.

“The UK government looks like it undervalues the contribution that low-skilled workers contribute to this part of the world,” she says.

“This economy specifically here in the North is being driven by people who are in low-skilled jobs, the people who pick our fruit, who work on the farms, who work in the chicken factories.

“They come here with a wealth of culture, social and economic benefits to our society, now they are being told they’re not welcome here?

“It’s an absurd policy that is not going to be sustainable.”