In a recent poll, Count Dracula and a Premiership footballer were the only notable names that British people could identify from the European Union’s (EU) two newest member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Even so, employers were anticipating a huge influx of migrant workers as the two countries joined the EU on 1 January.
However, unlike the nations which joined the EU in 2004, the government imposed strict limits on the numbers that are legally entitled to work here. As a result, employers will have to gain a far deeper understanding to avoid serious legal difficulties.
The huge influx of workers from Eastern Europe that came from the 2004 admissions to the EU, particularly Poland, has started to put a strain on public services and, consequently, the Home Office abandoned the open-door policy it used for the previous EU entrants.
Under the new rules for Bulgaria and Romania, only highly skilled staff, skilled migrants with work permits, students or food and agriculture workers will be allowed to work in the UK.
The government was concerned about the number of workers coming to the UK after its embarrassing underestimation during the last enlargement, when more than 600,000 arrived in two years, despite assurances that only 15,000 migrants a year could be expected.
Anne-Marie Balfour, a solicitor at law firm Speechly Bircham who specialises in immigration, says that employers could be caught out.
“I think the main implication for most employers will be an assumption that workers from Bulgaria and Romania have the same rights as those from other EU countries,” she explains.
And the penalties have got more severe. The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 introduced fines of up to £2,000 per illegal employee, plus custodial sentences of up to two years for those found knowingly to use or exploit illegal workers.
“Employers need to be very careful about getting staff from these particular countries and really check documents, but they also need to ensure they do not discriminate on the grounds of race,” warns Balfour.
Organisations will also need to watch out for one loophole that allows people from both countries to enter the UK as a tourist or as a self-employed worker.
For those employers who manage to handle all the red tape, unions will be keeping an eye out for any organisations using migrant workers in an exploitative way.
Shaun Bamford, the TUC’s policy officer for migration, says employers can guard against this by ensuring migrant staff are given fair access to basic rates of pay and training opportunities. He believes that employers should have been allowed to recruit staff from the two new EU states freely, because the number of people who are likely to migrate is far smaller.
“Lots of companies are investing heavily in migrant workers and doing very commendable things, but there are some issues because these people are eminently exploitable and some unscrupulous agencies can really go at them,” he explains.
“Employers need to look carefully at all the welfare issues and regulations. The rules on housing and accommodation can be very complicated so HR professionals need to look at them very carefully,” he adds.
Professor John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), fears that many HR professionals could get caught out with this round of accession.
“I don’t think enlargement will have a huge impact because the numbers will be so small, but I do expect a lot of illegal workers and that means legitimate employers could be caught out,” he says.
However, Philpott is confident that the HR community has learned useful lessons after building up nearly three years’ experience of dealing with EU migration.
“Migrant workers have had a big impact on recruitment in the UK, easing skills shortages and pay pressure. The market is still there, with as many as one in three employers still keen to hire staff from overseas,” he says.
“There have been some issues around integration and language, but I think the process has been handled relatively well by employers since 2004,” he adds.
Consequently, employers have become increasingly confident in hiring staff from Eastern Europe, with many recruitment consultancies establishing branches across the EU to help meet the demand.
James Strickland, director of recruitment firm Omega Resource Group, has an office in Poland and has seen interest in European staff grow steadily as employers continue to battle with domestic skills shortages.
Even he was surprised by the diversity of sectors and the number of employers that expressed an interest at Omega’s roadshows across the UK. “We knew that businesses needed more information but we were overwhelmed by the response. Companies still find overseas labour a realistic and attractive option,” says Strickland.
One business that has benefited massively from EU expansion is the transport giant First Group, which has recruited more than 1,100 employees to the UK from across Europe.
Neil Foames, manager of the European recruitment programme at First Group, says its migrant employees, mainly from Poland, have always shown loyalty and a great work ethic.
“The European recruits have added a lot to the business and helped us drive up retention rates,” he explains. “Welfare is a key part of this because the people we bring over are often looking to start a new life and need lots of support.”
First Group, which has a team permanently based in Poland, is still looking for more drivers and other skilled staff, such as engineers, and Foames was disappointed that the UK chose to place restrictions on people from the two new EU states.
“It’s always good to expand the search and it would have been useful to explore Romania and Bulgaria,” he adds.
Tom Hadley, director of external relations at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, says that employers are missing out on a valuable source of labour because of the restrictions.
According to Hadley, Bulgaria and Romania would be able to supply UK employers with a range of staff, particularly when it comes to areas of skills shortage, such as engineering.
“Our data shows that even with the influx of workers from Eastern Europe there are still shortages across the jobs market and a high demand for staff. It will be interesting to see what the skilled labour force is like in these countries because I think it will surprise some people,” he says.
The government has, however, promised to review the situation annually, so the restrictions may be removed. But in the meantime, Hadley fears confusion and legal problems for employers looking to find new recruits.
“The implications of the restrictions could be problematic for employers because people will be legally entitled to come to the UK, but not to work here,” he warns.
Hadley says that employers still need to learn more about communicating with migrant workers and looking at how they engage with the local community.
“Employers can increasingly play a role in dealing with the social consequences of migrant workers,” he adds.
With the EU looking to slow down the rapid expansion of recent years, overseas staff could become an even more valuable source of staff. Employers must learn the lessons of the past few years to compete.
The European club – two new members
- The largest of the Balkan states, the former Communist country has a population of about 22.2 million.
- The main religion is Christianity.
- About one-third of the population are employed in the agricultural sector.
- Other important sectors include: heavy industry, chemicals and manufacturing.
- The national minimum wage is currently equivalent to E69.12 (£46.32) a month.
- In transition after more than 50 years of Soviet domination. Economy blighted by strikes and political upheaval throughout the 1990s.
- Although Bulgaria joined Nato in 2004, it was not one of the states invited to join the EU in the same year.
- It has a population of 7.8 million.
- About 30% of school leavers go on to obtain a university education.
- The national minimum wage is currently equivalent to E61.43 (£41.17) per month.