The arguments for and against Brexit were complicated, emotive and confusing. Although the public vote stirred strong emotions from all sides, the debate didn’t extend much further than that.
Famously, the figures used by Vote Leave promised millions of reclaimed expenses to be committed to the NHS. These numbers were contested and shot full of holes, but for those who wanted to believe them, they were bulletproof.Vote Leave made similar nebulous claims about EU immigrants driving up unemployment by filling jobs at the expense of British-born candidates. Again, little concrete evidence for this statement was needed for it to capture the imagination and support of those who wanted out of the EU.
Now, with the UK formally applying to leave the union, it seems as though immigration figures may be falling by themselves.
Uncertainty about their future rights to work and feelings of not being welcome any more may be driving away a significant number of EU citizens away from the EU.
The jobs listing website Indeed has seen an 18% decrease in the number of EU citizens searching for work in the UK. The slow-down in EU workers coming to the UK has already had an impact on industry, with agriculture in particular suffering as seasonal workers from the continent stay away, making harvest time difficult.
The premise of Vote Leave’s immigration policy was to deny EU citizens the automatic right to live and work in the UK, only allowing those who were essential to the British economy. But that premise relies on one important factor: that EU citizens will want to come to the UK.
As Britain’s place on the world economic stage looks less prominent and the opportunities for EU citizens look less and less appealing, it’s hardly surprising that they will stay away.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that there were 2.3 million EU-born workers in the UK as of February this year. Johnathon Portes, an immigration expert from King’s College London predicts this number will go into rapid decline as those already in the UK return home.
Those EU citizens still tempted to cross the channel may be put off by their decreased earning power in the UK. Since the Brexit vote, Sterling has lost 10% of its value, meaning that EU workers in the UK are no longer taking home as much compared to their counterparts at home.
This decline is likely to have an impact on industries which have in recent years come to rely on EU labour. The construction industry, care for the elderly, and the NHS have been boosted by EU workers of all skill levels. A wide array of low-paying jobs would likely go unfilled by UK workers and for many skilled roles, there simply aren’t enough Brits with the right collection of skills.
A House of Lords EU home affairs inquiry was told that the healthcare sector in England alone relies on 160,000 workers from EU countries, working across the NHS, private care and adult social care. This works out at 10,000 doctors and 21,000 nurses, with 22,000 EU citizens working for the NHS in London alone.
Agriculture is already starting to feel the impact of EU citizens choosing to stay away from the UK. In September of 2016 the National Farmers’ Union reported that only 40% of its labour providers were able to recruit the right number of workers, with 85% of these coming from Bulgaria or Romania.
Indeed’s study found that the number of EU citizens looking at job ads for UK roles has declined by 18% since the beginning of 2017. The recruiter gets over 200 million monthly visitors and lists jobs across 60 countries.
Mariano Mamertino, an economist from Indeed, says “we are seeing a sharper and longer decline in interest in working in the UK than in previous ‘shock drops’ following last year’s referendum. As Brexit moves from rhetoric to reality, the strain on Britain’s strong but tight labour market will worsen.”
There may be debate about the importance of immigrant labour to the UK’s economy, but one statistic from the ONS makes it clear. Over 44% of all new jobs created in the UK were filled by someone born in another EU country, many from recession-hit countries such as Spain and Greece to fill low-paid jobs.
High street café chain Pret A Manger revealed that only one in fifty applicants for jobs at the chain were British citizens. Mamertino recognises the crisis this would cause “a British labour market with fewer EU workers… immediately confronted with a range of complex questions that will need to be resolved quickly to prevent major disruption.”
British Hospitality Association (BHA) Chair Ufi Ibrahim told the House of Lords that EU migrants often fill jobs that British workers are just not interested in taking: “it will be a very long time for businesses like Pret A Manger to replace EU staff… I think it will take 10 years to build a future talent pipeline.” Part of the problem for the hospitality industry is the perception of certain roles being low-paid and without opportunities for advancement.
Kathy Dyball, head of marketing at the hospitality job site Caterer.com said on Theguardian.com: “If a child says ‘I want to be a chef’ parents often dissuade them, because they believe the hours are long, the pay is low, it’s not a secure career.”
It also looks likely that EU students studying in UK universities are choosing to return home after their studies as they do not see the UK as offering them the same opportunities it once did.
Whilst the power-brokers in Westminster and Brussels are still arguing out the details of the UK’s future place in Europe, its fate is already being decided by the thousands of workers who deem it now to be a land of lost opportunity.
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