With the EU referendum date now set for 23 June 2016, Britain is about to embark on an unprecedented period of campaigning, public debate and mass speculation about the future of the UK and its relationship with Europe.

In particular, for the 2 million EU workers currently in Britain, there is no definitive picture of what a vote to leave Europe will mean for their rights to work and live in the UK.

This inevitably has a knock-on effect for their UK employers, who will be looking to minimise disruption to their workforce while ensuring their immigration practices remain legal and compliant. What is the Brexit Impact on Employers? How can UK employers and HR teams protect their organisations from potential disruption to their workforce following Brexit?

If we leave – how soon would it affect us?

Currently, immigration from the European Union is boosting the UK workforce by around 0.5% a year. It has helped support the economy’s ability to grow without pushing up wage growth and inflation, keeping interest rates lower for longer. Given these positive economic contributors, it’s unlikely the Government will pursue an overnight change in stance encouraging an exodus of this migrant population.

Looking longer-term, Brexit will without question be the catalyst for a shift in UK immigration policy that will also support the Government’s pledge to reduce net migration.

One possible approach could see new legislation allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK for a specified period of time, after which they would need to obtain a visa or residency on the same basis as people from outside the EU.

A major uncertainty of Brexit is for your migrant employees who have been here fewer than 4 years and are ineligible for permanent residency. It is unlikely they will be asked to leave, but what rights or status they will hold in the UK in the future is not clear. At this stage, we recommend seeking legal advice based on specific circumstances.

Your low skilled migrant workers will be at greatest risk

The biggest head of change for your organisation is most likely to be to your low skilled migrant workers; expect restrictions to the number of low skilled workers entering the country, with policy focused on attracting more highly skilled workers.

For sectors relying heavily low-waged labour, such as agriculture, construction and fast food retail, these changes will be business-critical. Alternative sources and approaches to recruitment will need to be explored to ensure employers avoid non-compliance with their immigration duties or even illegal working.

Conversely, those sectors struggling to meet their demands for high skilled labour such as technology are expected to benefit from this change.

Open dialogue with your EU workers now!

If you employ EU workers we recommend opening a dialogue with them now, offering support to ensure they are clear on their status in the UK in the event of Britain leaving Europe. It’s in your interest to minimise the risk of disruption to your due to changes in the working status of your labour.

For example, eligible European citizens working in the UK are being strongly advised to apply now for permanent residency. This proves their right to live and work in the UK for the rest of their lives.

It’s also worth noting, on a practical level, that in the run up to the vote, the Home Office is expected to be inundated with applications from EU citizens seeking to guarantee their status in the UK. This will impact lead times and decisions are expected to take longer.

At a policy level, a shift away from nationality-based eligibility towards skills and professions should benefit industry in addressing labour shortages in specific sectors. The flip side is that employers who rely heavily on the EU market for labour will need to review their approach to recruitment and business immigration following Brexit.

If the UK votes out, employers will continue to be required to comply with illegal working requirements including their duty to prove the right to work of all employees. These obligations could become more stringent in support of the stricter immigration policies.