A swath of UK industry would find it “near impossible” to recruit non-skilled workers from Europe post-Brexit if proposals recently outlined in a draft government document were enacted, according to the IPPR thinktank.
According to the Home Office document, leaked earlier this month, rules that apply to non-EU migrant workers could be extended to their EU counterparts when determining who has access to the UK jobs market.
Under this scenario, two crucial criteria would be introduced that restrict the ability of EU nationals to apply for jobs in the UK. Low-skilled jobs, those that do not require a degree or equivalent, would be closed to EU nationals in line with rules restricting applications from non-EU migrants. And jobs that EU nationals could apply for would have to pay a minimum of £30,000. In certain key sectors, this threshold would be raised. For example, EU nationals aiming for airline pilot jobs could apply only for those that paid more than £69,000.
The restrictions are favoured by a range of pressure groups – including Migration Watch and Leave Means Leave – which have argued this approach would help significantly reduce net migration once the UK has left the EU.
The restrictions are the most straightforward option for government because they would simply extend current rules that apply to migrant workers outside the European Economic Area. But the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests very large numbers of EEA migrants across several sectors would become ineligible under new “tier 2” rules for non-EEA skilled workers.
“It is right that the government wants to encourage employers to invest more in the UK labour force,” said Marley Morris, senior research fellow at the IPPR. “But an approach that simply extends the non-EU rules to EU workers would be a big hit to our economy. In hotels and restaurants, manufacturing, and agriculture, more than 90% of EU and EEA migrants currently working as employees in the UK would not be eligible under the non-EU rules. This would make it near impossible for some sectors to recruit from abroad post-Brexit.”
The IPPR analysis uses the Labour Force Survey, a quarterly sampling of around 38,000 households, to estimate the impacts of changes to the rules on freedom of movement. The thinktank drew on data for occupations and wages to estimate the number of EU and EEA employees in the UK who would not meet the skills and salary thresholds that would typically be required when a non-EU migrant applies for a work visa.
“Sectors such as finance, information and communication would be less affected as they are more highly skilled, but even here substantial proportions would not be eligible,” Morris said. “More than two-thirds of EEA migrant employees in health and social work would not be eligible – despite factoring in that nurses and paramedics are on the ‘shortage occupation list’.
“If the government were to simply bring EEA migrants into the non-EEA system post-Brexit, without other changes, this would have a dramatic impact on firms’ access to labour across the economy. This highlights the need for a careful approach to immigration policy post-Brexit that manages our labour market needs, and that allows for a coordinated transition to any new system.” In Florence last week Theresa May confirmed a two-year transition period during which current rules would apply. But the government has said freedom of movement must end afterwards, and many industries fear they will struggle to recruit workers.
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“This research shows, yet again, just how important foreign workers are to the UK,” said Seamus Nevin, head of policy research at the Institute of Directors. “The fact so many EU nationals would not meet the Home Office’s crude requirements for a visa shows just how ill-suited those criteria are. Government should take this as a warning that the current visa system is not fit for purpose. The Home Office urgently needs to reform our immigration system to ensure that UK employers across the charity, state, and private sectors are able to recruit the foreign staff they need to keep our economy and services functioning after Brexit.”
A spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation, which represents food and non-alcoholic drinks manufacturers, said the government needed to map out a plan for the UK labour market post-Brexit.
“We cannot afford any cliff edge, which would affect our ability to grow, produce, and serve the food we eat. It is imperative that we receive assurances about the future of our valued EU colleagues.”