As a global Yorkshireman, I have been saddened by our national decision to leave the European Union. One impact is the undoubted loss of much-needed diversity in our UK workplaces. In my travels, interviewing international CEOs and business leaders, I am often struck by how a strong cultural and gender mix helps make businesses tick.
The free movement of people has been a central tenet of the EU’s mission and all of the UK, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, have witnessed the influx of non-UK born Europeans working and contributing in our health service, our financial institutions, our retail and hospitality sector and in our seasonal farming and fishing. We cannot really afford to let this diversity slip away.
It is the reason that I support the British Chamber of Commerce in its appeal to give EU migrant workers ease of access to employment in Britain, without undue hassle and bureaucracy. The statistics are plain. For example, a London study has shown that 27 per cent of construction workers in the capital were from the rest of Europe and their endeavour and skills are desperately needed so we can build new homes.
In the 12 months to the final quarter of 2016, employment among UK nationals rose by 70,000, yet employment among non-UK nationals rose by more than 233,000 — three times more. Since 2004, when Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU, our national working landscape has been transformed. And for the better.
This determination to maintain the UK’s diversity was underscored by my recent BBC trip to Australia, a nation which has always embraced diversity and welcomed foreign nationals to maintain its position as the ‘lucky country’.
“We’re blessed with a beautiful environment. We’re blessed with enormous resources and a great culture, which is a mix of cultures because we are probably the biggest melting pot on the planet,’’ Steven Lowy, CEO of Westfield, told me. One in three Australians was not born in the country, or their parents were not born there. It is a young country that has thrived on diversity.
Ahmed Fahour, managing director of the Australia Post, also told me: “People came to this country with nothing and they had to build something and create something. So you have to be adaptive and resilient. That culture and history is an important part of who we are today.’’
Whatever the outcome of the impending negotiations, UK companies must do as much as possible to speak out for diversity in the workplace.
The UK has a similar story – over a much longer history. We should never lose sight of this. Whatever the outcome of the impending negotiations, UK companies must do as much as possible to speak out for diversity in the workplace. They must help ensure that non-UK born workers are welcome and rewarded for their contribution. Many successful professionals from outside Britain have come here to pursue their careers in our universities and hospitals, building strong connections with our communities and adding to our national skills base. We need to continue to nurture this influx of talent.
Furthermore, our diversity challenge also extends to seeing stronger female participation at executive leadership and board level. Britain still has a woefully low number of women in the top echelons of business, and this will severely hamper our economic well-being in the post-Brexit world.
I was interested to travel to Asia to interview Wandee Khunchornyakong, who runs SPCG, Thailand’s leading solar power company. In a country known for its uncertainty in both physical and political matters, women run more than a third of the top businesses. It is a nation with a strong consensus towards a meritocracy where the choice is who is most able and best qualified to undertake a job, rather than what gender they are. Thai women believe there are fewer barriers stopping them getting to the top.
“I have a lot of uncertainty in my own thinking but I have to really believe in myself that I can do it and make it happen,’’ Wandee explained to me.
We should take a leaf out of Thailand’s book. We need to see more non-UK born European women emerging as leaders in a myriad of industries to prove that we cherish and accept those Europeans who have decided to make the UK their home. Diversity is central to the idea of being ‘open’ for business. Let’s not retreat from something so worthwhile.
COMMENT: How do you think leaving the EU might affect British businesses particularly? How has the prospect of Brexit already affected your industry?
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By Steve Tappin
Chief Executive, Xinfu, Host BBC CEO Guru
Steve is a personal confidant to many of the world’s top CEOs. He is the host of the award winning BBC ‘CEO Guru’, which features in-depth, on-the-record interviews with the CEOs of the biggest and fastest-growing companies. Steve is the author of ‘The Secrets Of CEOs’, which interviews 200 CEOs on business life and leadership.