The industry has failed to meet the challenge for 50 years, but now is the time to act

The biggest danger facing Britain’s hospitality industry, post Brexit, is the potential clamp-down on migrant labour to this country. But Brexit should not be feared, say Bob Cotton and Miles Quest.

Recruiting British youngest has been difficult, nevertheless low productivity is the industry’s Achilles’Heel.

Brexit, looming on the horizon, is catching the UK hospitality industry on a decade-long roll. Cheap money had led to a remarkable upsurge in the construction of new hotels and other hospitality establishments. At the same time, a prolific supply of EU migrant labour has enabled the industry to experience more than a decade of unadulterated growth. Migrant workers, willing to accept the national minimum wage, have kept wage ratios firmly in check. And now, the weak pound – Brexit’s very own beneficial wind of good fortune – is encouraging more overseas visitors to the UK than ever before.  UK hospitality could hardly be in a better place.

But is this favourable scenario lulling the industry into a sense of false security? Cheap money and cheap labour have encouraged too many businesses to give too little thought to a future in which there will be fewer – and far more expensive – workers.

Undeniably, wage costs are already on the increase as the National Living Wage rises to £9 an hour by 2020; new pension arrangements are an additional expense. Energy, rates and food costs are all rising.   A decline in domestic consumer spending is being forecast.   

On top of these increases and developments will come a reduction in the availability of migrant labour once Brexit comes into effect in 2020. Here’s the rub. Any reduction in that supply will be serious and far- reaching.

Government thoughts are clearly (and rightly) turning to the introduction of annual work permits. The British Hospitality Association claims that hospitality will need 100,000 work permits a year post-Brexit – a not unrealistic figure. But even a vague admission by present government ministers that work permits might be a way forward has yet to be tested in terms of numbers and key decisions have still to be taken about the skill levels of workers allowed in. There is little evidence to suggest that the government would agree to the large number that hospitality is claiming when there are competing, and maybe bigger, claims from the care industry and NHS, retail and agriculture in particular.

Britain will continue as one of the world’s most attractive tourism destinations. Brexit won’t change that.

Post Brexit, far fewer migrant workers are likely to push average wage rates even beyond the present government’s proposed increase in the National Living Wage to £9 an hour by 2020. As so many hospitality workers (how many – 20 per cent? 30 per cent? More?) are at or below the current NLW wage level, the industry will inevitably find payroll costs under severe pressure. 

In many ways, the ready availability of migrant labour and low rates of pay has discouraged employers from sharpening up their act in the past. Only if productivity can be raised – if fewer people do more work at, yes, better rates of pay – can service standards be protected, staff be recruited and retained and wage costs contained. Low productivity remains the industry’s Achilles’Heel.

Even so, while Brexit poses a great danger in this respect, the larger picture for hospitality is more encouraging. 

Providing sterling stays at realistic levels and prices remain competitive (difficult with rising costs), Britain will continue as one of the world’s most attractive tourism destinations. Brexit won’t change that. Britain’s standards of food and hospitality are now high and rising; this will not change. When largely unhampered by EU oversight, the UK government will hopefully be able to implement desired changes in labour and food regulations, competitive tendering and other key issues that increase business costs. Comparison with EU VAT rates will continue to rankle though they are still unlikely to change. 

Nevertheless, post-Brexit, businesses will have to organize their more expensive workforce more smartly, ensuring that they take full advantage of technology and automation (not easy in a service industry). Placing greater emphasis on training and developing staff – apprentices, in particular – is as important as making a career in hospitality more attractive for British-born youngsters in terms of total working conditions – not just pay; unforgivably, this is a challenge the industry has signally failed to meet for the last 50 years which is one reason why it is still finding recruitment of British youngsters so difficult.

In a post-Brexit world – only two years away – those businesses that plan for a highly trained, lean staff, high-wage hospitality economy will surely be the wisest and the most successful.  It’s not too late to plan for this now.