Following the dramatic results in the EU Referendum, immigration issues will be top of the negotiations with the European Union as the United Kingdom seeks to leave.

What is clear is that things will change but what will this mean for you and your European workers?

Current position

All citizens of the European Economic Area (EU members, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) and Switzerland have the right to work freely in the UK as a result of the free movement of workers which is one of the fundamental concepts of the European Union.

Latest figures show that there are approximately 3 million citizens of other EU countries living in the UK, 2.1 million of whom are working which equates to roughly 7% of the working population in the UK. The majority of those immigrants arrived after 2006 which coincided with the enlargement of the EU to include such states as Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries. On the other hand there are about 1.2 million UK citizens living in Europe.

However, given the fact that one of the key messages of the Leave campaign was to tackle EU immigration into the UK, it is inevitable that such immigration will be restricted going forward.

Future options

It is possible that the government will agree a deal which maintains the free movement of workers. After all, this is the agreement that Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland have which allows them access to the single market and preferential trade deals. However, the emphasis placed on immigration issues by the Leave campaign makes it inevitable that some change will have to happen.

Boris Johnson has publically stated that he favours an Australian style points-based system. Our current system for non-EU immigration is based on the Australian model. It requires employers wishing to employ non-EU nationals to become sponsor licence holders and take on some responsibility for ensuring that immigration requirements are met.

The sponsor licence system restricts the type of work that non-EU workers can do. Employers can only bring in workers if they will be carrying out 'skilled roles' which fit specified job descriptions and are paid a minimum salary level. A skilled role is one which is graded as being at National Qualification Framework level 6 or above which essentially equates to degree level. Grading of jobs is decided by the Office for National Statistics with advice from industry experts and the Migration Advisory Committee. Each job has a minimum salary level applied to it and non-EU nationals must be paid at least that if their application for sponsorship is to succeed.

A large number of current EU workers are employed in less skilled roles which would not, under the rules as they stand now, qualify for sponsorship under the points based system. This means that, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, when the UK exits the EU they would be ineligible to remain and work in the UK.

What do I do now?

At the moment the status quo is preserved until the finer details of Brexit are negotiated. However, it would be sensible to start panning early. If you employ a number of EU workers you will want to consider the potential impact on your business of having to replace those workers. If they are skilled workers, you may want to consider an application for a sponsor licence to enable them to continue to work for you.

What are the options for my EU workers?

At present they still have the right to live and work freely in the UK and this is unlikely to change for some time as the UK's relationship with the EU is unpicked.

At the moment, EU workers have never had to consider other ways of living and working lawfully in the UK as they simply have the right to do so. However, under current EU law EU citizens have the right of permanent residence in the UK once they have been living and working in the UK for at least 5 years. They can apply for a permanent residence card to prove that they have satisfied those criteria. As this is based on current EU rules it is not clear whether this will still apply but as it is similar to the rights of skilled workers to apply for settlement after 5 years residency it would be surprising if this changed too much.

EU citizens could also consider applying for UK citizenship under the naturalisation rules once they have held a permanent residence card for at least a year and if they satisfy they can show they are:

  • 18 or over
  • of good character
  • will continue to live in the UK; and
  • have met the knowledge of English and Life in UK requirements

Some EU nationals may want to pursue this option to ensure that they have the continued right to live and work in the UK.

At the moment the situation is far from certain but immigration issues are bound to be the focus of attention over the coming few months and we will make sure that we keep you up to date with developments.