David Rae: Why Lincolnshire businesses should welcome Eastern Europe

This story is over

A recent report in Lincolnshire Business warned that unless action is taken to deal with the migrant labour shortage, crops in Lincolnshire fields could rot in 2017.

Agricultural production in Lincolnshire is highly dependent on seasonal workers from eastern European countries; but while demand for workers is increasing, they are earning less money since sterling fell against other currencies and are feeling much less welcome.

This matters for Lincolnshire businesses and the health of our economy.

Recently I visited Poland and the Czech Republic as part of a Universities UK delegation to develop closer research and educational links between the UK and these countries.

We did not know how we would be received so soon after the Brexit vote, but found friendly welcomes and strong appetites for future co-operation, with both Polish and Czech universities keen to develop partnerships with the UK.

Government and university leaders in Warsaw were very interested to hear that Lincolnshire has the largest Polish expatriate population in the UK.

Many Polish migrants intended to settle permanently in the UK, and they make major positive contributions to the workforce, the economy and local communities in other ways, not least through having children.

The 2011 census shows that the eastern European community is both younger and more economically active than the native British population. Also, many have the potential to work at the higher skill levels employers need, and are ambitious to gain more advanced qualifications.

This will be vital for businesses looking to fill apprenticeship roles, especially as bigger firms start to pay the levy in 2017. Their participation in the job market is economically vital for Lincolnshire, both now and in the future.

Set against this are the damaging effects on their communities of intolerance, xenophobia and race hate crimes which have increased since the June referendum, causing anxiety, uncertainty over future plans, and even fear.

Not only are such acts illegal, they have no place in business. We have to work for mutual respect and tolerance across all our communities.

Leaders in businesses, as in education, public services and local government, have a responsibility to demonstrate that our eastern European citizens are welcome, respected and entitled to their civic rights.

Poland, and other eastern European states, can become valuable export markets and trading partners in the future, based on communities with freedom of movement and shared links in both countries. Our visitor economy can also benefit greatly from their custom. Let’s make 2017 a year in which Lincolnshire builds closer links with eastern Europe.