Brexit: How can HR keep EU workers in the UK?

Brexit work
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As the Brexit negotiations approach their final months, Louise Haycock provides a pragmatic analysis of what employers can do to maximise their ability to retain their EU workforce in the UK.

The workforce is the most vital part of any business and companies in the UK have benefited enormously from the migration of workers from Europe. EU nationals play a significant role in UK businesses, with recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that there are currently 2.28 million EU citizens working in the UK, representing 7% of the UK’s total workforce.

Following the Brexit vote and the possibility of a no-deal scenario, businesses should be mindful that employees could be concerned about their future in the UK and may decide to relocate and seek work elsewhere.

Replacing these individuals when free movement ends and European nationals are subject to an immigration regime could be tricky. It could restrict the number of new projects the company is able to undertake and potentially reduce revenues. This could prove a very serious issue for UK firms, with many already suffering from a skills shortage due to the record high employment rate in the UK and official statistics revealing that unemployment now stands at just 4.2%.

It is therefore crucial that companies take action and devise internal HR policies to help their EU workers. To devise and implement useful policies, HR professionals must first build an understanding of how Brexit affects EU citizens and what they need to do to remain in the UK after it leaves the bloc.

What is going to happen?

By the time the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, European nationals living in the UK will be able to apply for settled or pre-settled status. A transition period will run until 31 December 2020, during which free movement will remain intact and EU nationals can freely come to the UK and work. However, they must register their presence and apply for settled status or pre-settled status if they wish to remain in the UK after the transition period comes to an end.

Settled status relates to those who have resided in the UK for five years or more, whereas pre-settled status applies to those who have been in the UK for fewer than five years. There will be an application fee of £65 for adults, £32.50 for children, though the government has said this cost will not apply to children in care or those who have a permanent residence document.

While it may sound daunting, the process itself is intuitive and relatively simple. The Home Office has shifted away from postal applications by instead enabling people to apply online. Identity can be verified through an app or by sending their passport to the Home Office by post if the person prefers.

Eligibility for settled or pre-settled status will be assessed by automatically examining an individual’s tax and/or benefits records through data sharing with HMRC and the Department of Work and Pensions which should show how long a person has been in the UK. Where these records do not demonstrate the duration of an individual’s residence, there is the opportunity to provide additional evidence.

It is crucial that companies take action and devise internal HR policies to help their EU workers”

It is crucial that EU citizens submit their pre-settled/settled status applications by 30 June 2021 when the scheme will close (apart from for those with pre-settled status who become eligible for settled status and for some family members), and employers should provide EU workers with the support they need to do so.

What employers can do

The first step for HR professionals is identifying any European nationals who work for the company, informing them of the process for applying and ensuring that they have access to up-to-date information. It is crucial that businesses also engage with and provide reassurance to staff who are worried about what Brexit will mean for them and their families.

Employers should consider the different groupings of individuals, such as Irish nationals, EU nationals in the UK, UK nationals in the EU and VIPs and those on or taking assignments. They can devise separate communications strategies for each of those cohorts and ensure that they are driving at the issues which affect each grouping.

Businesses may take this support a step further by offering to cover the cost of their settled status application. This should help reassure workers while also demonstrating their value to the company, encouraging them to stay in the UK. Understandably, not every business will be able to provide such a measure, but they can still give direction and assistance to walk them through the application process.

Businesses should engage with and provide reassurance to staff who are worried about what Brexit will mean for them and their families”

Employers should take particular care with EU national employees who are currently on or contemplating going on an assignment out of the UK. Time outside of the UK could affect an employee’s eligibility for settled/pre-settled status and this should form part of the planning conversations to ensure that everyone who expects to return and work in the UK in the future is able to do so.

UK companies should also be alive to the possibility of a no-deal scenario and ensure they understand the risks and develop contingencies if the UK’s immigration system for non-EU workers is implemented for workers from the EU. Conducting a gap analysis and looking at how the European migrant workforce maps to the immigration rules should highlight where there is the potential for labour shortages in the future and this can shape policy priorities.

EU nationals represent a large part of the UK’s workforce. Navigating through the uncertainty of Brexit is a significant challenge that all UK businesses must confront, and the needs of the workforce must not be overlooked. Employees are at the heart of every company and HR teams must work to retain them, otherwise the business will suffer.

Louise Haycock

About Louise Haycock

Louise Haycock is senior manager at Fragomen
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