Some of the fears raised during the debate about whether to leave the EU are now being realised following the Brexit decision.
The leave or remain arguments brought simmering resentment in some parts of Britain to boiling point. Prejudice, although expressed by a minority, was unleashed against people from outside this country. The scalding effect is being felt in retail.
Cosmetics retailer Lush has given non-EU staff in Poole, where it is headquartered and has factories, the option of moving to work at its new plant in Germany.
About a third of Lush’s staff in Poole are not UK citizens. Co-founder Mark Constantine fears that the referendum result, including the local vote, has sent the message that staff from overseas “are not wanted by people in Poole”.
That’s despite the fact that they are calculated to spend £4.6m locally on everything from food to housing, and about £700,000 in council tax.
Constantine is acting from the best motivations – concern for his staff – and there is no intention to cut jobs in Poole, which will continue to manufacture for the UK market.
Making the case
According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory there are 442,000 EU citizens employed by UK retailers, and in hotels and restaurants, who make up almost 8% of the workforce in such businesses.
In the febrile circumstances following the referendum, it is vital that retail chiefs make the case inside their companies and in the communities they serve to highlight the valued contribution of all colleagues – no matter where they are from – to calm fears.
At present that is pretty much all they can do, because of the political vacuum and lamentable absence of leadership that followed the Brexit vote.
Now that there is a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, the case on behalf of freedom of movement must be made at a political level.
Alongside that, retailers can help navigate the choppy waters in other ways.
Immigration became a defining issue of the campaign because of alienation among many British citizens who feel the doors of opportunity are closed to them.
Retail is the biggest private sector employer and can create opportunity, but again the industry is not being helped at a policy level as concerns persist about the looming apprenticeship levy.
Many questions remain about how it will work.
Aside from the financial impact, there is confusion on many levels, from ensuring it provides useful experience to how it is implemented in different parts of the UK.
Nevertheless, apprenticeships provide opportunities, including for those who may feel marginalised, to get on the career ladder. And retail creates rewarding careers.
In these uncertain times retailers can help lift aspirations, and by doing so help calm the atmosphere of division in the nation and improve their chances of business success.