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88% of current EU workers in UK would not be eligible for a visa, finds research

New research released today by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank, in partnership with Adecco Group UK & Ireland, has highlighted the potential impact on the UK labour market should employers face restrictions on the recruitment of EU workers as a consequence of leaving the EU.


Working Together? The impact of the EU referendum on UK employers shows that 88% of current EU workers in the UK would not qualify under existing visa rules for non-EU migrants. UK employers remain heavily reliant on EU workers, with the 1.6m EU workers currently employed in the public or private sectors making up 6% of all UK employees.


The research is based on an analysis of the potential labour market impact of a ‘Leave’ vote and subsequent change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Under a scenario where free movement of labour no-longer applies, the analysis reveals that applying current UK visa requirements for non-EEA workers on EEA workers could have a severe impact on the UK labour market.


Key findings from Working Together? show that if the current UK visa policy that applies to non-EU employees were applied to EU workers:


  • Only 12% of current EU workers in the UK would qualify, with an even lower share of private sector employees qualifying.


  • 10% of London employees would not qualify under the visa rules, despite a relatively large proportion of London-based EU workers being on comparatively high salaries and in graduate occupations. At around 13%, London has the highest proportion of EU workers of all UK cities.


  • While ‘accommodation and food services’ has the largest proportion of EU employees –amounting to almost 14% of all employees in the sector – only a negligible proportion (less than 1%) would qualify and meet all three requirements of the visa system.


  • Almost all workers in manufacturing, agriculture, administration and support, and transport sectors would not fit the visa requirements, despite these sectors employing large numbers of EU workers.


  • Applying an earnings qualification particularly penalises part-time workers. Although 5% of all part-time workers are from the EU, almost all would fail to meet the current visa requirements. This means that the potential effect from moving away from free movement and towards an immigration policy similar to the one we currently have in place for non-EU workers could mean a loss in flexibility, with fewer workers available to recruit for part-time work.


Working Together? also describes the jobs and characteristics of EU employees in the UK and reveals the extent to which UK employers have recruited from the EU:


  • There are currently 1.6m EU workers employed in the public or private sectors, making up 6% of all UK employees. They are more likely to work full-time (79% compared to 70%) and are more likely to be employed in the private sector (85% compared to 73%), compared to UK born employees.


  • Employers in London, the East of England, the East Midlands and the South East are particularly reliant on EU employees, as are those in Northern Ireland. In London, one in eight (13%) of all employees is from the EU.


  • EU employees are particularly prevalent in specific sectors such as manufacturing (10% of employees) and accommodation and food services (14% of employees).


  • EU employees are on average educated to a higher level than UK-born employees. For example, only 15% of EU employees have left formal education before the age of 17 compared to 44% of UK-born employees. 42% of EU employees were educated beyond the age of 21 compared to 24% of UK-born employees.


Nigel Keohane, co-author and director of research at the Social Market Foundation, commented, “Our research shows the reliance that UK employers have on EU workers.


“In the event of a vote to leave we do not know what immigration regime would take the place of free movement. Our analysis of the potential effects of applying the current visa policy for non-European workers to EU workers and other potential strategies reveals the potential scale of the effect on UK employers.”


Adam Hawkins, managing director and board member at Adecco Group UK & Ireland, said, “Under a scenario where free movement of labour no longer applies and EU workers were subjected to the same visa requirements that are currently in place for non-EEA workers, 88% of EU workers currently working in the UK would fail to qualify. Filling this gap may pose a real challenge for UK employers. 


“With 1.6 million EU workers currently making up around 6% of the UK workforce, it is clear that a severe change to our relationship with the European Union could provide a serious challenge to thousands of British businesses.”


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