European Union nationals working in the retail sector must be allowed to continue to work freely after Brexit, or British shoppers could face higher prices, an industry body warned on Monday (9 October).

The warning from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), came after its latest snapshot of the retail industry revealed a number of firms were growing increasingly worried about the future of EU workers post-Brexit.

Some 170,000 EU nationals work in the retail sector, accounting for 6% of the sector's total workforce, and the survey found 22% of the companies polled had already reported staff returning to the EU amid uncertainty over their future in the UK.

"The UK's decision to leave the EU has created uncertainty, not only for business, but for the people from the EU they employ," said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson.

"These are real people with families, livelihoods and homes in this country."

Since Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU in June last year, the uncertainty over the future of EU workers based in the UK has been source of concern for both workers and employees. The government has repeatedly been urged to guarantee EU workers leaving in Britain by the Brexit deadline of March 2019 will be allowed to remain in the country, but has so far failed to do so, prompting many to return to their home countries.

This could have a serious knock-on effect on warehouse and distribution chains, the BRC added. Furthermore, a lack of EU workers could lead to higher prices, as retailers would have to scramble to replace their staff and skill sets.

As a result, the BRC has called on the government to ensure the retail sector will have access to non-graduate EU workers on a "demand-led" basis, which would ensure the future of European workers in Britain.

"It is not right that 16 months after the referendum these people still don't have the security they need to continue their lives," Dickinson added.

"And from our data it is clear that unless we have the right structures in place to support retailers attract, recruit and retain workers, consumers will soon start to see and feel an impact as they shop."