The number of European Union workers employed across Northern Ireland has fallen by one quarter since the UK's Brexit referendum, new figures reveal.
As pressure mounts this week for a breakthrough in the ongoing Brexit negotiations with European Union (EU) leaders meeting for talks on June 28th and 29th, Belfast-based journalism website the Detail reports a downward trend in the number of EU workers employed in the North since the UK voted to leave the EU.
Labour force estimates provided by Northern Ireland's Department for Economy (DfE) reveal there were 14,000 fewer EU nationals working in Northern Ireland by the end of March 2018 compared to the period of the June 2016 referendum, representing a 26 per cent drop. The estimates do not include workers from the Republic of Ireland.
Other available estimates show a falling number of Lithuanian workers while the number of Polish workers has fluctuated since June 2016.
Honorary consul for Poland in Northern Ireland, Jerome Mullen said: "The falling numbers don't come as a surprise to me because EU workers are not coming here and they're not going to come. For EU citizens Brexit brings a lot of uncertainty and as we go forward, and that uncertainty continues, the fall in EU workers is only going to get worse."
This comes as a DfE report published in March found EU migrant workers were the key driver in employment recovery and growth in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2016. During that period the number of EU workers grew by 40,000.
A number of sectors in Northern Ireland are heavily reliant on migrant workers including manufacturing, the agri-food sector, hospitality sector, health and social care services, and retail and services sector.
A survey of agrifood businesses by Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Association (NIFDA) also found 80 per cent of respondents saw a fall in the recruitment of EU workers since the Brexit vote. The survey, in September/October 2017, involved 23 firms in the agrifood sector employing close to 5,000 people.
NIFDA executive director Michael Bell said it was "definitely a significant challenge for the agrifood sector going forward. There is increased competition in the wider economy for what is now a diminishing pool of foreign national workers".
The Department for Economy did not comment specifically on the fall in EU workers but noted that labour force estimates may be subject to volatility and seasonal fluctuations.
A skills barometer published by DfE and Ulster University in 2017 forecast that 80,000 jobs will be created by 2026 and that more than one third of these will be filled from a combination of graduates and migrant workers.
Workers in the North from the rest of the EU, excluding the Republic of Ireland, account for 5-6 per cent of the North’s workforce but are an important resource for particular industries.
Chief executive of Manufacturing NI Stephen Kelly said: "These are very concerning numbers and reflect what we're hearing from business – workers are leaving, not returning and firms are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit replacements."
Founder of Grafton Recruitment and honorary consul for Hungary Ken Belshaw said currency fluctations were also influential. "We're not seeing the same influx of labour from Eastern Europe as before and the key driver for that is a drop in the value of sterling. That's a major indirect Brexit factor and it's having an impact on whether people come here or not."
Mr Belshaw warned: “We’re now at crisis levels for skilled jobs like welders, fabricators, and LGV mechanics. We’re not getting the same influx of skilled labour from Eastern Europe for these jobs and workers are not available locally.”