Business

Brexit and its potential effect on EU Labour supply in Northern Ireland

The relatively easy ability to employ EU citizens in Northern Ireland could become more challenging post-Brexit
Gerard Ward

WITH less than six months until the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the Prime Minister remains hopeful a negotiated agreement is the most likely outcome. However, given the UK and EU's divergent positions on key issues and a clear deterioration in relations, it seems a no-deal exit, is now a real possibility.

This issue has been further heightened following last week's combined call from the Northern Ireland business community for regional flexibility around migrant labour policies.

Issues of crucial relevance to Northern Ireland employers, especially those who employ so called "low skilled" workers from the EU, relate to the impact that any form of Brexit will have on "citizen's rights" and "freedom of movement". Curtailment of these rights will inevitably present these employers with significant and in some cases, insurmountable recruitment problems.

At present Northern Ireland employers find it relatively easy to recruit and employ EU citizens. This is because EU citizens enjoy an almost unfettered access to enter, reside and work in the UK. These rights are automatically acquired by virtue of their Member State citizenship, which provides a gateway to permanent residence status and UK citizenship.

So, what lies ahead for these employers, post-Brexit?

In its June 2018 "Statement of Intent Document", the Government set out further details of its "settlement scheme" for EU citizens. The document proposed that those EU citizens who have lived in the UK for a continuous period of five years, as at December 31 2020, will be entitled to apply for “settled status”, which is a broadly equivalent status to permanent residence or Indefinite Leave to Remain. Attainment of this status would also secure the ongoing right to legally work in the UK.

For those EU citizens who arrive by December 31 2020 but do not meet the 5-year residency test, an opportunity to apply for "pre-settled status" will be available, which will enable them to reside and work in the UK until they attain 5 years residence.

Recruitment of EU workers beyond Brexit?

At her recent Party Conference, the Prime Minister's unequivocal answer to this question, was that the Government will move to end "freedom of movement once and for all".

This statement accords with the recent recommendation of the influential Migration Advisory Committee, that EU citizens should be provided with no preferential treatment - and instead be made subject to the same onerous requirements of the UK Immigration Rules and Points Based System as non-EU citizens.

Any employer with experience of attempting to help prospective employees secure permission to work under these rules will testify to their arduous and complicated nature. This will invariably impact on the recruitment and employment of low skilled EU workers.

Finally, what steps can employers take to best position themselves for a post-Brexit labour market?

• Audit your workforce and identify employees who can or will need to regularise their immigration status;

• Explore options for those employees i.e. citizenship or permanent residence for qualifying EU nationals;

• Introduce support programmes to assist employees in securing the appropriate status and ongoing right to work in the UK.

:: Gerard Ward is a senior associate, employment at DWF Belfast

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