In imposing a digital-only immigration status, the Home Office has rolled out an untested experiment on millions of Europeans living in the UK. Now many are locked out of accounts and anxiously awaiting decisions. Employers are growing impatient and people fear for their jobs. In this guest blog, Dr. Dora-Olivia Vicol, founder and Director at the Work Rights Centre writes about why the Home Office must take urgent action to avoid a mass denial of rights for Europeans in the UK.
The EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) was introduced in March 2019 to provide Europeans living in the UK before Brexit with a means to secure their immigration status and remain in the UK. Designed as a primarily digital system, the scheme requires applicants to apply online and then use its digital-only system to prove their status and entitlements in the UK. From July 1st 2021, EUSS status holders are expected to use a “share code” to prove to employers they have the ‘right to work’ in the UK.
With just over a month left until July, delays, inadequate employer ‘right to work’ checks and IT glitches are already hurting European migrants’ mental health, their job prospects and their finances, putting them at increased risk of labour exploitation. My colleagues at the Work Rights Centre and I see it every day. It’s time the Home Office sees it too.
Despite the fact that new digital ‘right to work’ checks only come into effect in July, employers are already asking European staff and job applicants to show their status under the EUSS. Even government job adverts made EUSS a condition of employment – against Home Office advice, which states European passports are enough proof of ‘right to work’ until then. After years of operating in a hostile environment, employers concerned by the risk of penalties appear to be exercising an excess of caution, at the detriment of workers’ rights.
These inadequate checks coupled with a significant backlog in decision-making for EUSS applications pose a major risk to thousands of Europeans’ job prospects and current work. The latest statistical release has shown the Home Office is currently facing a backlog of 305,000 EUSS applications awaiting a decision. This is only marginally smaller than the 320,000 figure reported at the end of March, making it unlikely that all applications will be processed by June 30th, when the scheme closes.
Over the past couple of months, we have heard from people who were asked to take time off until they could provide their right to work under the EUSS, or who were excluded from the second stage of a job interview. We also heard of countless instances where employers ask for even more evidence than the law requires. As my colleagues on the frontline can attest, a pending EUSS application can be the difference between getting a job and being left without an income; between a good night’s sleep and months of anxiety and self-doubt. Unable to prove their ‘right to work’, workers are more likely to be pushed into informal working arrangements, where they are at higher risk of labour abuse and exploitation.
Despite these concerns, the Home Office is unclear about how employers should deal with pending applications. A careful look through the depths of the Employers’ Guide indicates that employers can request a status update via the Home Office’s digital ‘Employer Checking Service’. Yet, at this point, this option was unavailable in the platform which stated that for workers entitled to apply for the EUSS, passport or ID are sufficient proof of ‘right to work’. In a bitter twist of irony, employers are rushing to demand ‘right to work’ checks before they are supposed to, while the Home Office’s own system reflects only the soon-to-be outdated process. Meanwhile, the voices of employment rights experts who note that these checks shouldn’t even be conducted yet, are drowned out by an abundance of caution by employers.
The digital-only nature of the EUSS is also putting pressure on workers and job seekers who struggle with IT. Having captained a charity that specialises in supporting Europeans who struggle with English and IT literacy, I fear that they will be excluded from the scheme or made to depend on external help. Since March 2021:
The problem appears to be growing, as the Brexit ‘grace period’ deadline looms and the Home Office digital service is grappling with increased demand. The day this piece was written, one of our beneficiaries reported being inexplicably locked out of her accounts, then logging in to see incomplete information, without her picture. Her English was excellent and she was comfortable operating online. In her case, the glitch just happened. For many others facing language or IT barriers, demonstrating their status through the EUSS system is an everyday struggle.
These are some examples of the issues with digital-only systems. For a long time, campaigners have warned about its limitations. Despite concerns, MPs have rejected calls to provide migrants with physical proof of EUSS status, and the courts ruled that this digital-only status was not discriminatory against the elderly, the Roma and the visually impaired, despite evidence provided by migrants’ rights groups. Responding to this, the Home Office promised that it will take steps to make the process more inclusive, claiming that that no harm has been done so far. Yet, I fear harm is being done every day.
First, the Home Office needs to be clear about the rights of Europeans workers with pending EUSS applications. Its guide to employers suggests that Certificates of Application could be used. But the process is yet to be implemented and communication to employers is lacking. Clarity is needed urgently to prevent hundreds of thousands of applicants from being excluded from employment and pushed into informal work arrangements.
Second, ‘right to work’ checks should also be available offline, to prevent the discrimination of EUSS holders who struggle with IT literacy. Having rejected the provision of physical proof of status, the Home Office outlined plans to grant the EU Settlement Resolution Centre – the EUSS’s official support service – powers to issue “digital share codes” over the phone. Yet once again, this is an ambition nested in the depths of a legal document. European citizens, advisers and employers deserve to know if, when and how the EUSS can be mobilised offline.
Finally, the EU Settlement Resolution Centre needs increased capacity. Anyone calling can expect delays of hours before an adviser picks up – and if their enquiry is about being locked out of their EUSS account, it can take weeks before the issue is solved. With demand likely to increase as we get to the June 30th deadline, this agency must withstand the pressure.
To prevent a digital disentitlement and show the public that the hard lessons from the Windrush scandal have been learnt, the Home Office needs to take action fast. My greatest fear is that businesses will dismiss people who can’t prove their right to work, and that employment rights will be thrown under the Brexit bus. The risk is particularly high for people on worker status, who don’t have a right to notice periods or redundancy pay, and who are overrepresented at the low-paid end of the labour market. We cannot let this happen. During this pandemic, we used our voices to cheer for essential workers, many of whom are low-paid European migrants. We must use them once again to call for their safety.