Immigration and restricting EU migrant rights to freedom of movement were core issues in the lead up to the referendum vote, yet agreement on the detail of a new UK immigration policy continues to be a way off, leaving employers, workers and their families in limbo. Researchers based in the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at LUBS working on labour migration, mobility and changing patterns of work, have been working with different interest groups (business, unions and civil society) in a unique way to enhance understanding of how these groups are coping with the uncertain impacts of the Brexit vote. This exploratory research provides insight into the ongoing challenges of trying to anticipate, respond to and shape migration policy for and on behalf of their members in an uncertain context. This blog sets out the background and how the CERIC team’s research agenda is being shaped by bringing different interest groups together on this emotive and evolving topic.
After the BREXIT vote in June 2016, UK and EU negotiators signaled that reaching agreement on the rights of EU and UK citizens already living in another member state was a priority. Yet, it was only on 8th of December 2017 that UK and EU negotiators published a joint report outlining principles on the treatment of EEA nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU and on 21st June 2018, that the UK government announced details of the ‘settled status’ scheme. Campaign groups point to many ‘unsettled’ questions about this process and the new forms of regulation of EU labour mobility post-Brexit. An immigration bill was announced in January 2017 but was subsequently put on hold until wider Brexit negotiations are progressed. The UK government has indicated EU freedom of movement will end, but migration policy continues to be shaped by the wider negotiations with the EU and ongoing internal political processes and policy analysis. The Home Secretary instructed the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to report by September 2018 on the impact of EEA workers on the UK labour market and the Home Affairs Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Post-Brexit Migration Policy. Thus, there continues to be both formal and informal spaces for dialogue between different groups of social actors seeking to shape these outcomes.
While these deliberative processes are ongoing, net migration has slowed considerably since the referendum vote. According to the ONS, the largest drop in net migration to the UK to occur in decades was experienced in the period June 2016 to June 2017 falling from 336,000 to 230,000: three quarters of this fall was due to the drop in migration from the EU. More recent statistics show that migration from the EU has continued to fall. The ONS reports notes that ‘the numbers of EU citizens coming to the UK looking for work decreased by 58,000 over the year to September 2017, particularly driven by the fall in numbers of citizens from EU15 and EU8 countries (24,000 and 18,000 respectively). For the latter, this is the lowest number recorded since accession. Recent polls suggest that the UK general public’s perception of immigration has softened since the Brexit referendum, yet the ONS migration data are indicative of the material effects felt by workers, and by extension employers, of the ongoing uncertainty of how the UK will regulate EU labour mobility post-Brexit.
Employers, legal advisors, trade unions, civil society and faith groups and local, national and international authorities all have concerns around the implications of Brexit for their various constituents and are variously involved in the political debates noted above. The positions and actions of these different interest groups, therefore, have important implications for the changing socio-economic relationship between the UK and the European Union and for the UK’s own social model. Some of these groups seek to be a counterweighing power to social, political and media forces seeking a ‘hard’ Brexit outcome and stricter regulation of EU labour migration to the UK. These groups are also critical in shaping the environment that affects the everyday experience of those that exercised their right to free movement between the UK and the EU. CERIC’s research has been on exploring actions and reactions of these groups within this extraordinary period of uncertainty by asking a set of inter-related questions: How do different social actors imagine the migration landscape post-Brexit? What challenges and consequences of Brexit do they anticipate for labour mobility? How are they formulating policy positions and trying to shape the debate around the new post-Brexit immigration system?
By critically exploring the competing visions of what the UK’s new social model might look like and bringing together the voices of different interest groups we are generating new data and promoting dialogue as part of our commitment to developing research that is co-produced: giving different stakeholders a voice in shaping the key research questions and design. The framing of these questions aims to not only understand and amplify these diverse voices but also to bring different actors together to discuss complex questions. To realise this aim CERIC researchers have undertaken scoping interviews and both hosting and participating in roundtable events exploring common concerns and areas of difference with respect to the question of labour mobility around four connected and overlapping themes, employment and legal frameworks; social protection; regulating labour mobility and migration policy. For example, in September 2017, CERIC held a roundtable with employer groups including the Chamber of Commerce and Sector Skills bodies, civil society organisations campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and trade unions. Members of the CERIC team have also participated in roundtable events hosted by other partners including the Chamber of Commerce and regional migrant support networks and undertaken wider interviews with employment lawyers, faith and community organisations. The following summarises the themes emerging from these discussions and we conclude by setting out the implications for our research agenda.
The significance of labour mobility and freedom of movement
The different groups taking part in the research had contrasting positions in advance of the referendum vote. For example, most, but not all, trade unions advocated for ‘remain’ and were generally in favour of continuation of the free movement of workers. Business organisations took a more neutral stance due, in part, to business members being both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ supporters, reflecting that some sectors such as hospitality, construction and the public sector are much more likely to be adversely affected by restrictions in the movement of EU workers, whereas other parts of their constituency were less likely to employ migrant workers. Unsurprisingly, those campaigning for the rights of EU citizens were in favour of remaining in the EU. Overall there was limited reflection given by employer or worker representatives on the merits or challenges presented by the existing policy of freedom of movement. Much more emphasis was placed on what might come next. There was an acceptance (albeit for some, a very reluctant acceptance) that there will be restrictions placed on future migration from the EU.
The discussion developed more broadly to cover future scenarios for the UK economy informed, in the main, by existing understanding of what had led to pre-Brexit levels of EU worker migration to the UK. These drivers were seen by business and worker representatives as inextricably linked to economic considerations such as UK and EU labour markets, pay and wages, skills supply and demand, levels of employment (and under-employment) and UK trade and investment decisions. Yet, the civil society groups that were campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK reminded us that, while key drivers for migration is often work and employment, there also many social factors that shape labour mobility such as the quest for family re-union or education. In this regard a worrying report by colleagues at the University of Birmingham has been published recently, highlighting the legal limbo in which many EU families will find themselves in the field of family re-union. These observations made it problematic to talk about migration policy in isolation and illustrates the need for future migration policy to be developed with reference to wider policy considerations. Rather than re-thinking the regulation of migration in isolation, remarks from the participants reflect that post-Brexit migration policy needs to be developed in the context of wider economic and social considerations. This accords for example with the objectives of the current MAC commission on the employment of EEA workers which seeks to ‘aligning the UK immigration system with a modern industrial strategy (p20),’ yet many other aspects of related policy also need to be considered in terms the affect worker rights, labour standards, social and welfare rights.
Visions for EU labour migration under different Brexit scenarios
Different visions of future migration policy were expressed by the various stakeholder groups. Employer organisations taking part in the CERIC research were, over-time, less ardently free market oriented than might have been expected. Initial positions stated by employer organisations in the months immediately after the referendum strongly expressed the desire for open migration regimes to meet the needs of employers seeking sourcing both high and lower skilled workers. Over time, the tone expressed by some employer groups had shifted slightly to the acceptance of a migration system that may be more restrictive due to the need to be mindful of ‘politically acceptable’ outcomes. However, umbrella organisations such as the CBI and Chamber have continued to push government for greater certainty on the rights of their EU workers, on hiring from EU countries during the negotiation period and to avoid overly bureaucratic processes for post-Brexit hires. One employer group, the CITB, were hopeful that a case could be made for special conditions to more easily allow recruitment from the EU to address ‘strategically important’ skills shortages. Others, such as the British Hospitality Association (BHA) have suggested a sector-based quota system for hospitality, considering that predicted annual recruitment need is over 100,000 people, assuming zero labour turnover amongst British born workers. The likely restrictions associated to the terms of residency for workers under these quota systems need however to be considered as part of the wider social implications that migration reform has on migrants’ rights and those of their families.
The TUC and union participants in the CERIC roundtable were more clearly advocating for free movement and for the importance of free trade and the single market as an important mechanism in establishing a ‘level playing field’ making particular reference to the value of the Social Chapter and its benefits for both ‘good’ businesses and for workers. Underpinning this position was a common assumption that withdrawal from the EU would lead to employment protections being weakened, threatening a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of worker rights and employment practices that also adversely affect those ‘good’ employers. There have been public assurances from the Government that workers’ rights will be maintained and even strengthened but many, including trade unionists, remain skeptical that this will be the case.
The current activity of different interest groups could be grouped into three categories: developing more intelligence on labour mobility issues affecting members; developing support and guidance for constituents and looking to shape the political debate. The employer bodies participating in CERIC discussions were trying to improve data and analysis on the use of migrant labour amongst their membership to help assess the potential impact on the future workforce. They were also developing understanding of the potential for and limitations of employers using alternative strategies to make up for any loss of EU worker recruitment through for example more training and development of indigenous workers or investment in new technologies. Yet the employer groups noted that gaps remained in their understanding of patterns of migrant labour demand or the longer term historical drivers that had shaped labour migration in specific sectors and regions. Many unions and employers were using legal services to keep themselves up to date with the negotiations between the UK and the EU, advising EU migrants among their members on how to apply for permanent residence under the current regulation. For example, the BHA is providing materials to help ensure that workers can exercise their rights to certification of permanent residency where applicable. This work also aims to have a positive effect in terms of boosting goodwill with EU workers towards hospitality sector employers. Trade unions were also directly engaging with EU migrant workers and community networks to provide advice to those concerned about their rights during the transition period.
Influencing the debate
CERIC’s initial research involved participants from international, national and regional organisations in order to explore the nature of dialogue at, and between, different levels. At the international level, UK civil society groups have been campaigning to develop alliances with those leading campaigns promoting the interests of UK citizens in Europe and engaging directly with the EU negotiators to stress that EU labour mobility should be an intrinsic part of integration undertaken by the people of Europe themselves rather than a purely economic matter deriving from the rules of the single market. At the national level, all groups are making representations to government through formal and informal channels including to the relevant parliamentary scrutiny committees of DEXEU and Economic Affairs and the Home Office appointed commission on EEA migration being undertaken by the MAC. Regional groups, perhaps inevitably, made reference to the possibility of regional flexibilities in any migration system, notably to meet particularly localised skills needs. This focus is shaped by broader political tensions around the devolution of powers to the UK nations and regions of the UK including the devolution of budgets around skills training and infrastructure. This view was given focus by an early report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which contained six proposed options for the new immigration policy one of which included the suggestion of sub-state solutions to migration policy.
Conflicting and Common issues
Our roundtable discussions included some robust (yet cordial) difference of opinion around: visions of future policy and the impact of new migration regulations on employers and citizens. In particular we noticed different understandings of what “regulation” means. Employer bodies associated migration policies with the possible risk of increased bureaucracy, notably at the point of recruitment. In contrast, trade union representatives regarded regulation positively in the form of protections of standards for workers. Unions stressed that proposals requiring workers to have employer sponsors could make migrant workers more dependent upon those employers, limiting their voice. An obvious paradox emerges in that employers were highlighting the cost of compliance and unions the cost of non-compliance or regulation that enables the potential for greater exploitation of workers, thereby lowering labour standards.
In terms of common threads, there were four areas where there was a convergence of views: firstly, the need to assure security for those EU workers already in the UK and their families; secondly, that student numbers should not be included in migration statistics; and, thirdly, that there was need for greater dialogue between different groups of stakeholders to build a better consensus on the way forward, not just toward Brexit, but after the exit date and beyond. Finally, it was also notable that there was a common view amongst stakeholders that investment in local, indigenous, labour was seen as a possible alternative strategy that could mitigate against the need for migrant labour. This runs counter to an alternative perspective: the skills and training of indigenous workers could be seen as positively related to the use of migrant labour. This is a theme that the interim MAC report of March 2018 noted, providing illustrations of how the recruitment of skilled European workers contributed to improved training levels. The final report by MAC on EEA workers, due in September 2018, will look specifically at the impact of the employment of EEA workers on the UK resident population, including the impact on training.
It remains to be seen how UK government and EU negotiators will re-shape labour migration regulation to adequately address the demands of civic, business and labour organisations in the UK while giving regard to the outcome of the referendum vote. This continues to take place within an uncertain and volatile political environment. The early stage research undertaken by CERIC researchers has provided insights into the ongoing challenges and activity of different groups trying to anticipate and shape policy appropriately for and on behalf of their members. Key themes emerged for the future directions for research. This includes the need to improve understanding of the regional and sectoral dimensions of the ‘EU workforce’, how patterns of migrant employment have developed and the roles that different institutional actors have played in facilitating these trends and finally, how migration policy will evolve in relation to related (socio-) economic policy such as the UK Industrial Strategy.
This requires taking more historical and sociologically informed perspectives to help move the debate forward. A deeper analysis will help different interest groups anticipate the implications of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ BREXIT scenarios. The co-production approach has illustrated the willingness of different parties to strengthen and deepen the level of debate, enhance understanding of different positions and provide opportunities to influence debate at the local, national and international levels. Participants recognised the value of exploring policy proposals through joint analysis of tensions and common ground to help unpack the content of proposed policy develop understanding of potential impacts on the rights and responsibilities of different groups helping to move the debate beyond current political narratives focused primarily on annual immigration targets. CERIC researchers will continue to bring these voices together, highlighting points of tensions as well as commonalities, contributing to the development of research informed public debate and policy that will shape the social model of a post-Brexit Britain that will, whatever the outcome of specific migration policy, to continue to be inextricably linked to that of its European neighbours.
 Office for National statistics. Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: February 2018 Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2018#fewer-eu-migrants-coming-to-the-uk-for-work
 EU15 country members prior to the 2004 enlargement; EU8 those joining in the 2004 enlargement
 For a discussion of co-production in social science research see for example https://www.n8research.org.uk/view/5163/Final-Report-Co-Production-2016-01-20.pdf