Brexit: What this means for migrant workers & their UK employers

Despite Britain’s departure from the European Union not officially coming into play for two years, Brexit has sparked a rush of immediate worry and uncertainty across the country amongst all citizens regardless of nationality, income and location. Even those who voted for Leave can’t be sure of the short and long-term implications of the referendum decision, resulting in a palpable sense of unrest.

It appears that leaving the EU will affect many aspects of UK business operations, none more so than the relationship between British companies and their migrant workers.

Immigration and Free Movement Negotiations

We are still awaiting negotiations regarding immigration and free movement following Britain’s vote out of the EU. Although initial Brexit commotion has simmered down, many migrants are undoubtedly uncertain about their futures here in the UK. And it’s not only the migrants who are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the negotiations; businesses across the country are nervously anticipating the future of many of their employees and its bottom line consequences.

What is making things more difficult is the lack of clear advice to migrant workers on the options they have to help better secure their future before the exit is finalised.

Our educated opinion – and this is all we can offer at this stage – is that the best case outcome of the negotiations is the continuation of free movement within Britain and the EU. This isn’t out of the question due to the desire of free trade and would mean there would be little to no effect on migrants who currently work here, as well as those who are planning on moving to and from the UK in the future.

The next best option would be that migrants who currently reside and work in the UK at the point of formal exit are allowed to stay even if free movement ends. Although paperwork may need to be completed by migrants and possibly employers, this option will have little impact on businesses in the short term – until they look to increase their workforce. It would also undoubtedly increase attempted settlement in the UK within the next 2 years.

Much of course depends on how the retention of single market membership (which many strongly believe is still in our best interests) is used as a bargaining tool to offset against the free movement of people. If the referendum did indeed come down to voting on the immigration issue - and the new Prime Minister Teresa May feels the need/pressure to support the Leave voters who in the majority want to tighten border control -  we may well see stricter migration rules in favour of single market inclusion.

Therefore the worst case scenario is the ending of free movement and no guarantee to migrants currently in the UK to whether they can stay. Applications and legal documents will need to be processed by thousands, uncertainty will linger and the possibility of a sudden shrinking of workforces across the country would be high.

Migrants and UK Employers

Migrant workers make up a bulk of many workforces in various industries in the UK. The most reliant industries being food manufacturing with 31% of migrant workers, domestic personnel (e.g. housekeepers and carers) with 23% and the accommodation industry (e.g. hotels) with 21%. Industries with a large proportion of migrant workers need to be prepared for the outcome of the EU referendum and how they’ll handle it. See the full list of industries most reliant on migrant workers below (stats by the Independent):

Industries most reliant on migrant workers:

  1. Manufacture of food products: 31% of total workers
  2. Domestic personnel: 23%
  3. Accommodation: 21%
  4. Crop, animal production, hunting: 16%
  5. Mining of metal ores: 14%
  6. Warehousing and support for transport: 15%
  7. Services to buildings and landscape: 14%
  8. Food and beverage services: 13%
  9. Manufacture of leather and related: 12%
  10. Manufacture of textiles: 11%

Not only do we need to be prepared for poor negotiations and the consequences that will follow, but it’s possible that migrants may start to feel unwelcome after the vote to leave the EU (especially after hearing reports of increased racial attacks), that they may consider moving back to their home countries or elsewhere in the EU where they presume is more accepting.

We, and other UK employers who strongly value the diversity that migrant workers bring to our workplaces, can help make migrant workers very much welcome here in the UK. On the bright side, with companies taking a hard look at the members of staff they may risk losing as a result of Brexit, there may be a much broader appreciation of diversity and desire to protect it than we’ve seen before.

Increased Risk of Modern Slavery

Not only do we need to be concerned about the futures of migrants who are here in Britain by choice, but we need to be aware that Brexit could have potentially scary consequences for migrants who are vulnerable and at risk of human trafficking and slavery.

Britain would be weaker in the fight against people trafficking out of the EU
— Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International

It was claimed that ‘Britain would be weaker in the fight against people trafficking outside of the EU’ and although we currently can’t be certain whether this is an accurate statement, we need to ensure that “progress already made on standards and ethical approaches is not diluted”.

The Future Is….

All we have is dialogue at this stage; so much remains to be seen. Once formal decisions are made by the new Government, concrete action can be taken. There is nothing wrong, however, in planning for the worst case scenario and doing what we can to prepare.

One thing is for sure – there will be more talk about migration, human trafficking, modern slavery and worker rights than ever before, which is a good thing. If Brexit issues help bring other issues to light, we’ll have healthier, happier workers of all nationalities in the long run.