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Car industry fears foreign staff will not return after Christmas

Alan Tovey
BMW says 500 of its 8,000 employees in the UK are foreign - PA

Britain’s car industry is braced for an unwanted Christmas present with foreign workers failing to return to their jobs after the festive break.

The UK’s £77.5bn a year automotive sector relies on European staff both on car production lines and in factories making components for vehicles.

It estimated that an average of between 20pc and 40pc of employees in the sector are foreign but there are growing concerns that uncertainty over Brexit is driving them away.  

A cocktail of sterling’s 20pc fall since the referendum, worries about their working status in the UK, concerns about how welcome they are in Brexiting Britain and the downturn in the industry is causing foreign staff to revaluate their jobs.

Diesel sales are plummeting

A source close to BMW - which makes Minis in Oxford and Rolls-Royces in West Sussex - said: “There's a real fear that they go home for Christmas and just don’t come back again. The euro has risen in value so the jobs here aren’t as attractive as they were.”

Of BMW’s 8,000 staff in the UK, about 500 are foreign, with the highest concentration at the Goodwood Rolls-Royce plant where the ratio is 250 out of the 1,400 employees. Other major manufacturers are understood to have similar levels, with foreign staff levels higher in manufacturing roles.

One leading component manufacturer whose workforce is 40pc EU nationals said: “Every time something goes wrong with the Brexit negotiations another wave of people leave.”

The supplier - who spoke anonymously for fear that admitting the scale of the problem could jeopardise contracts - added sterling’s current weakness is a major factor. Wages paid in pounds no longer carry the premium they once did when sending money home, he said.

“It’s not worth being here for them if they have a job offer at home,” said the manufacturer who has several hundred staff and supplies some of the world’s best known marques. 

“They get great experience in the jobs here which makes them more employable in their home countries where the industry is strengthening and the economies are improving.”

With staff often taking years to train, supply chain companies are understood to be facing rising costs and loss of productivity as they struggle to find replacements and train them in jobs which have fallen vacant.  

“The car companies can afford to pay to get people, but it is harder down here in the supply chain,” the component manufacturer added. 

Car industry trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said it had no hard data on the scale of the problem. However, anecdotally it is said to be a major concern, with companies in the supply chain hit harder than major manufacturers. 

A report from the Automotive Council last year - the most recent data available - said there 5,000 vacancies in the industry, though this is now said to “hugely underestimate” the scale of the problem.

Ralf Speth, chief executive of Britain’s biggest car maker Jaguar Land Rover, has previously spoken about the issue.

Speaking at the company’s “Tech Fest” event the car boss - who is German - Speth, who was himself born in Germany, said: “People who come to the UK want to have special conditions because they don’t know whether they have to leave and therefore they expect special contracts.

"You want to have a longer contract and better conditions at the end of the day just to be convinced.”