May 5, 2016

How will Brexit affect EU nationals working in the UK?

Central to the whole debate about Brexit is of course the thorny issue of immigration. Immigration is a highly politicised and sensitive area, but it is something that HR needs to be thinking about.

Will Brexit change the situation for EU nationals working in the UK? No-one really knows as yet. In the immediate and short term, little is likely to change for workers or the businesses that employ them. The long term implications are unclear.

What’s for sure is that there are an awful lot of EU workers in the UK right now, making very valuable contributions in the workplace. Under EU law, citizens of EU member states are entitled to move to and work in other member states. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are unprecedentedly high levels of EU workers in the UK – 2.1 million. This includes a new high of 219,000 workers from Romania and Bulgaria. These figures mean that there were nearly 300,00 additional EU nationals residing in the UK when the figures were compiled, compared to the previous year’s data. That is a 16% rise.

What this indicates is that there are lot of UK employers using migrant skills. CIPD research shows that many employers really like the current situation of being able to access migrant workers to overcome recruitment difficulties and skills shortages.

However, should Brexit become a reality, then businesses and HR need to be ready for the fact that the status of EU nationals could change and the rules governing how employers use this valuable skills resource could change.

As we said earlier, the good news is that little is going to happen overnight. If it’s a yes vote, as in yes, the UK leaves the EU, then there is a two-year breakaway period while the details of the withdrawal are worked out.

David Cameron has said that the EU’s core principle of free movement would still remain, even if the UK votes to leave the EU. It is likely that the UK and other EU countries would come to some kind of special arrangement that maintains the provision of free movement. The UK government could decide to retain unregulated or regulated entry of EU migrants or it could decide to adopt a managed approach to migration, covering both EU and non-EU nationals.

It is hard to determine the impact Brexit would have on employers – there are so many unknown, variable factors. Decisions such as how many migrants are admitted each year, the criteria used to determine who gains admittance and the way the processes are both regulated and enforced would all have an impact.

Even if little will change in the short term, HR needs to prepare itself for the potential ramifications. Conduct a workplace audit – how many migrant workers are in your organisation? Where are they? What is their status now and what will it become post-Brexit? HR needs to ensure there is minimal disruption to the workforce. But, it also has to ensure that the workforce is legally able to work and reside in the UK. Keep the workforce and management informed about any changes to status and rights.

It is very easy to view immigration through a one way lens – people coming to the UK to work. However, there are a lot of UK nationals who choose to work abroad, many of them in other EU member states. Leaving the EU could potentially limit or remove the right of UK nationals to move around and work in other EU member states. This has implications not just for individuals, but also for businesses that might want to move nationals around.

It’s not long now until we find out whether it’s Brexit or not, so HR needs to be ready for either eventuality – or as ready as it can be.

Next week’s Brexit post looks at skills.

• DPG would like to thank the CIPD for their input into this article.