In an interview with The House magazine, Carolyn Fairbairn said public figures “need to be incredibly careful about the language we use” and said the business community would like to see attacks on EU citizens brought to an end.
She also warned that imposing strict restrictions on low-skilled migrants after Brexit – as Mrs May is believed to support – would lead to businesses going under and trigger job losses.
The Prime Minister was forced to apologise following a backlash over her words at the CBI conference last month, when she said that after Brexit “it will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”.
Ministers have yet to agree what the UK’s immigration system will look like after Brexit, but it is understood that the Prime Minister wants to restrict the number of migrants earning less than £30,000 a year.
When asked to comment on the proposals and Mrs May’s words on EU nationals, Ms Fairbairn said: “We completely understand that there are real issues of public trust in the immigration system. We heard that really clearly in the referendum and respect it.
“The second thing we absolutely understand and are committed to is fantastic training for our young people. We absolutely understand that we need a new system and there needs to be a twin-track of migration alongside training.
“However, we do have real concerns about a rhetoric and a policy from government that appears to be shutting off, or indicating they will shut off, all so-called low skilled people coming into the UK.
“The impact of doing that would be so damaging for our economy and I think it is underestimated how big a shock that would be. Some have equated it to the oil price shock of the 1970s…
“If this happened overnight, you would see businesses go under and we would lose jobs rather than create jobs for our population. Our messages are really ones of measure and balance and recognition of where we are.
“I would say one other thing. I do think we need to be incredibly careful about the language we use. The idea that we would be talking about EU workers in our country in derogatory terms I think is something that certainly our business community would really like to see stop.”
She added: “[Let’s] have a much more earnest conversation about the value that people bring to our economy. We absolutely recognise the system should change, but we think it can be controlled and open at the same time. We have proposals on the table to do that. We are asking the Government to listen to us on it because this is about the real risk of damage in the short run to our economy.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Ms Fairbairn called on MPs to back put “pragmatism” ahead of “ideology” at the upcoming meaningful vote and support the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
“The first thing is that we would ask every MP in the country to consider the economic impact of different choices on their constituencies and really think through the different alternatives,” she said.
“There is no majority in parliament for any other outcome. The risk of unleashing further disruption on British business and the impact that will have on jobs is very real. We do ask them to be pragmatic in terms of their decision.
“We are not trying to tell them how to vote. This is their choice; it’s not all about economics. But a large part of it we believe should be about economics because it is about jobs for the future and their local businesses.
“The political process may deliver other outcomes and we will evaluate them as they arise. But for the moment, based on the cards in front of us and the challenges that businesses are facing, this is the deal that we believe MPs should really consider very carefully.”