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Immigration & EU workers: Putting Brexit back on the agenda

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In the midst of Covid-19 and business continuity planning, it is important that employers and particularly HR teams do not lose sight of the other pressing issue – Brexit and in particular the impact this will have on the workforce.

With fears of further waves of Covid-19, especially as winter draws near, many businesses are struggling to focus on anything else. But, with only four months to go till the UK departs from the EU, how many employers have dropped the ball? Research released by the CBI has revealed that one in five businesses are less prepared for Brexit now than at the start of the year due to Covid-19. Half of businesses are no more prepared for our departure than they were at the start of the year. Lastly and perhaps this is the most cause for concern, 21% of respondents said that their Brexit preparations had actually derailed since the start of the year.
 
Brexit and the impact it will have on non-native workers has winners and losers. For those who are already sponsor license holders, there will be certain advantages when the UK's new points based immigration system kicks in: a lower minimum salary level, an increase in roles available to sponsor and no advertising requirement. However industries dependent on a consistent influx of EU workers, such as hospitality, retail, manufacturing and construction etc are likely to be the most impacted as the numbers of EU workers in the UK declines. In particular a key feature of the new immigration system is that EU nationals will require sponsorship in the same way as non-EU nationals. The UK's departure could potentially raise a lot of questions and doubts over the stability of their workforce.
 
Now while Brexit is a multifaceted complex issue and although we officially Brexited on 31 January 2020, the UK still has no clarity on whether we will exit with or without a deal. The transition period is due to end on 31 December 2020. On 1 January 2021, the UK's Australian style points based immigration system will kick in, marking the most significant developments in UK immigration law in 40 years. This is important as there are certain things that employers who rely on EU workers can and should get in place before this cut-off date.
 
With not long to go, let's look at the key actions HR can do now to make the transition easier.
 
EU settlement scheme – sooner rather than later
 
The quickest way for employers to safeguard the future of their workforce and keep their trained workers is to communicate with staff regarding the EU settlement scheme, the scheme introduced to allow EU, EEA and Swiss citizens to continue living and working in the UK after the cut off period of 30 June 2021. It is the responsibility of the individual to make their application to the Scheme, which means employers cannot require them to apply before the cut-off date and cannot require them to provide proof of applying. However it seems best for HR teams for them to ask employees if they are willing to share whether they have applied and if they are willing to share proof of their status once it is in place. HR teams should in the meantime analyse what roles and which areas of the business are likely to suffer.
 
The latest stats released from the Government showed that at the end of June 2020, there were over 3.7 million applications to the scheme. While this is a positive figure and shows than many of our EU workers are likely to stay post-Brexit, the number of refused applications is increasing. Employees and employers have a common goal here, which is to remain in the UK and keep working. Employees should be risk averse and apply sooner rather than later.
 
All in a day's work
 
Our clients are often surprised to hear about the various opportunities available regarding workplace planning. Now is the time to be alive to and take advantage of the cut-off date. The key cut-off date is triggered at 11:00pm on 31 December 2020. Provided an EU citizen enters into the UK by the 31 December 2020, they're permitted to stay and work and have up to 30 June 2021 to apply to the scheme. This period is the time for HR teams to plan recruitment drives and resource work contracts.
 
The period 1 January to 30 June 2021 will allow eligible EU nationals some breathing space to apply to the Scheme. Businesses will need to be cautious about checking the Right to Work documents for those EU nationals recruited during this period. If they first arrived in the UK after 1 January 2021, they will be subject to the new immigration system and will require a visa to work.
 
Becoming a sponsor
 
We recognise that while the EU settlement scheme will be of great use to many, in reality worker shortages are likely to be an issue soon. Therefore, employers may wish to consider whether they should apply for a sponsor licence to enable them to continue to recruit workers from outside the UK including EU nationals.
 
Applying for a licence carries with it requirements and responsibilities for employers. When considering if the company could benefit from a licence, employers should ask themselves the following questions:
 

  • What percentage of your workforce are EU nationals?

  • What are your future recruitment needs?

  • What has been in the impact on your business, since Brexit was announced, have you seen a pattern in dipping levels of key EU workers?

 
Once an employer decides whether a sponsor license would be of value to the business, it is best to apply for a licence sooner rather than later to ensure it is available to use by the end of the year, to minimise delays or disruption to workforce planning.
 
The changes to the UK's immigration system will herald a new era for the UK and while no business can entirely be prepared for what will happen at the end of the transition period, it is important that employers do as much forward planning as possible.



A version of this article originally appeared in Personnel Today

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