The continued decline in EU immigrants coming to the UK is increasingly taking its toll on the UK retail and food sectors, industry representatives have warned.

The latest ONS Migration Statistics showed the number of EU citizens coming to the UK looking for work declined by 35,000 in in the year to September 2017.

British Retail Consortium (BRC) chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “The labour market is tightening with a continuation of the trend of EU citizens leaving and fewer coming to the UK. 170,000 people from the EU work directly in retail, which accounts for 6% of the industry’s UK workforce. In some regions of the country and different parts of the industry this is much higher – over a quarter in warehousing and distribution, for example.

“The latest migration statistics echoes the BRC’s own research by highlighting how the lack of certainty about the future status of EU colleagues and the UK’s future relationship with the EU is driving workforce changes. The knock-on impact of a potential reduction in availability of skills and workers, and higher costs of employment could hit the availability and choice of goods for consumers.”

BRC research has revealed that 56% of retailers said their EU colleagues are concerned about their right to remain in the UK, while 22% have reported that people from the EU have already left their UK workforce.

British Sandwich & Food to Go Association (BSA) director, Jim Winship, added: “From restaurants and takeaways to manufacturing, many are already struggling to fill vacancies. Indeed, walk down any high street and the evidence can be seen in the number of signs in windows for staff – many more than we have seen for years.”

The BSA and BRC have warned that a sharp decline in the number of EU workers coming to the UK after Brexit would significantly disrupt the entire food chain, and have urged the government to shape immigration policy to allow businesses to employ the workers they require.

Dickinson said: “For retailers to continue delivering for consumers now, the government must recognise the spectrum of skills and experiences that currently contribute to the success of the industry. Future immigration policies must be framed to support domestic firms, including retailers, to access the skills they need.”

Winship said: “The food industry is a major contributor to the UK economy – the sandwich and food to go sectors alone provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and turn over in excess of £20bn annually.

“We rely heavily on people to maintain these industries and we are extremely concerned that the politics of immigration could rule at the expense of the economic case for maintaining a viable workforce.”

The BSA has urged the government to introduce a work-based VISA system linked to a particular business which would tie immigrants to a job and which would expire if they left that employment.