With the so-called "Brexit Election" just around the corner, a key question at the ballot box is how the major parties plan to deliver Brexit. The answer to this question will impact on the immigration status of EEA migrants and, in turn, will have a knock on effect on the workforces and recruitment activities of many businesses throughout the UK.
What are they promising?
Immigration has remained the focus of the Conservative approach to Brexit. Whilst the Party's stated aim of securing "the entitlements of EU Nationals in Britain and British Nationals in the EU" during negotiations bodes well for EEA migrants already based in the UK, this is countered by a continued commitment to reduce annual net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.
The Conservative manifesto goes on to say that Britain "will no longer be a member of the single market or customs union" and sets out plans to "establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs".
This pledge to crackdown on immigration from the EU, assuming a Conservative government would be able to negotiate it, has the potential for significant impact on the ability of many business based in the UK, particularly in the low-skilled, low-paid sectors to fill future roles.
The Labour Party's manifesto directly counters this approach: "In trade negotiations our priorities favour growth, jobs and prosperity. We make no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets".
Labour confirms a plan for "fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain" and that "a Labour government will immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries."
Whilst Labour too refers to an end to freedom of movement and that "Britain's immigration system will change" upon Britain's exit from the EU, they appear to be taking a softer approach to immigration from the EU, which suggests scope for a lesser impact on the UK labour market.
So what can you do to prepare?
The lack of certainty makes for interesting speculation as to what the future holds, but this, of course, does not help businesses in the UK in assessing the degree of risk they are subject to, in terms of: (i) the retention of a portion of their existing workforce; and (ii) their ability to recruit in the future.
With this in mind, we suggest the following:
Look at the diversity of your workforce
Using existing equal opportunities monitoring data, identify the composition of your workforce. By mapping out what proportions of your workforce are British, other EEA or non-EEA citizens, and the roles filled in each category, businesses will be able to identify where there may be gaps in future staffing provision and any potential skills shortages.
Provide current EEA workers with information on how they might want to secure their futures in Britain
EEA migrants who have been in the UK continuously for at least five years (subject to eligibility) may apply for: (i) a document certifying permanent residence; or (ii) naturalisation as a British citizen (the individual will be required to apply for a Permanent Residence Card in order to make the application, in any event).
Having a permanent residence card will not provide qualifying EEA migrants with complete certainty around their status. However, in our view, those with permanent residence are the most likely to be protected under the arrangements for Brexit, because they will be more easily able to demonstrate that they having been living and working in the UK for a period of time by virtue of them having the card.
EEA migrants who have been living in the UK less than a continuous period of five years may apply for a Registration Card, which demonstrates that they are exercising their Treaty rights.
Look at ways in which low-skilled roles can be made attractive to jobseekers (or future jobseekers who may still be in education) whose right to work in the UK will definitely be unaffected by Brexit
It seems that the greatest impact on the workforce to date, since the referendum and subsequent triggering of Article 50, has been seen in those sectors with significant proportions of low-skilled and seasonal positions.
In areas where there are high levels of EEA migrants in roles (or leaving roles because of the current uncertainty) there is merit in considering how you will encourage applications for future positions from those individuals whose right to work in the UK will not be affected by Brexit.
There is no easy answer as to how to encourage applications for these positions from our future generations of British workers. Widening the scope of where you advertise roles, through use of social media for instance, may result in applications from a wider demographic of society and could lead to more applications from suitably qualified workers whose right to work in the UK is unaffected by Brexit. Alternatively, businesses could perhaps tap into potential applicants from other areas of society through programmes with schools and other education establishments, as well as through the use of apprenticeships.
Businesses looking to expand and/or relocate could also factor into their decision-making on the location of workplaces, the proximity and accessibility to prospective candidates,