Last week, a BBC Question Time audience member was roundly mocked for wondering aloud who would serve her coffee at Pret a Manger stores in London if all EU nationals were asked to leave after Brexit.
But on Wednesday, Pret’s head of HR told Parliament the firm will struggle to serve its lattes and cappuccinos without employing people from the EU.
Andrea Wareham said 65 percent of the firm’s employees were non-British EU workers and without them Pret wouldn’t be able to fill jobs.
“If I had to fill all my vacancies with only British applicants I would not be able to fill them,” she told the House of Lords Economic Affairs committee.
“We have ten million hours of work at Pret and six and a half million are currently used by the EU [workers],” she added.
With just one in fifty applicants being British, Wareham admitted the firm could have done more to attract UK employees.
“That would probably be fair,” she said in response to a question. “We now advertise in the UK only. We’re now going to have to try harder.”
And she said Pret had “accepted” the number of EU workers will reduce after Brexit.
“We are entirely accepting that the number of EU nationals will go down over time and we would love to increase the number of UK nationals within our business. We absolutely accept that is going to happen,” Wareham said.
“Our thoughts around this are that there could be quotas based on data in terms of how much work is required and as the number of EU nationals goes down, the number of UK nationals increase. That needs to happen as smoothly as possible over time.
“We are excited about, actually there’s more that we can do to attract the fantastic British workforce to our industry even though it is difficult in central London locations. That takes resource but if we have that we will be successful in that.”
We are entirely accepting that the number of EU nationals will go down over time Andrea Wareham
But she added that the government’s focus on high-skilled jobs “doesn’t help us in any way”.
She said without changing perceptions of a job in hospitality, the outlook wouldn’t improve.
Wareham argued the whole UK hospitality industry should work together to change the image of a career in food retail in the eyes of British school leavers and parents.
And she called on the government to support and strengthen careers advisory services and to adapt the curriculum to focus less on university.
“Actually it is a success if [schools’] 16, 17-year-olds come to work somewhere like Pret,” she said.
She revealed managers at the chain earn as much as £40,000-£45,000 after bonuses. The starting wage is just over £7 per hour.
Wareham nodded in agreement with fellow witness Tim Martin of Wetherspoon when he suggested that while EU nationals in London were “fantastic”, his business proved UK workers could do as good a job.
Martin, who founded the national pub chain and vocally supported Brexit, told the committee many of the problems are connected to a “rising population and relatively low birth rate”.
He said his business relied upon far fewer EU nationals outside of London.
He said the capital is different from other UK cities. “It’s always been difficult to attract British people to London,” he said.
Wareham added that “for now” EU nationals working at Pret are “staying put.. waiting and watching” amid questions over their future in the UK post Brexit.
“At the moment they are travelling hopefully and we are hopeful they are able to remain,” she said.