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Life post-Brexit: What now for EU workers in the UK?

July 5, 2016

On the 23rd of June 2016 the UK voted in favour of a British Exit from the European Union. As a result of BREXIT migrants from EU countries feel vulnerable and uncertain about their rights in the UK. At FLEX we are mindful of the increasing vulnerability of EU workers because of this vote, and of the deep concern for the future of workers’ rights and entitlements more generally.

Theoretically all workers are vulnerable as a result of BREXIT, as many of the rights and entitlements in UK employment law flow from EU Directives. However, EU workers will be particularly vulnerable now because of confusion about status and entitlements. There are currently 3 million EU citizens’ resident in the UK, of which 78% are in employment. 1.4 million arrived before 2006 and have put down their roots here. Many more are availing of free movement and attending schools and universities. In recent days leading figures in the Government have refused to guarantee that EU nationals will be allowed to remain in the UK once Britain’s withdrawal is complete.  This will understandably leave many EU nationals feeling exposed and uncertain about their future and about their rights to live and work in the UK.

In the months ahead the Government could face significant pressure from employer organisations to repeal or amend labour laws that are viewed as creating a regulatory ‘burden’.  For example, the contentious Working Time Regulations Act 1998, which lays out regulations for rest breaks, annual leave, and maximum weekly working time could come under threat. Derived from the EU Working Time Directive and directly applicable across all EU countries, it was essentially created to protect workers health and safety by limiting the amount of hours that could be worked in a week. Due to EU’s legal system’s wide coverage of labour law, withdrawal from the EU could potentially affect the following areas: agency worker rights, part-time worker rights, fixed-term worker rights, collective redundancy, paternity, maternity and parental leave, protection of employment upon the transfer of a business and antidiscrimination legislation.

Vulnerability of EU migrants working in the UK

To date, free movement has worked well in terms of curbing the less onerous elements of border and immigration controls. EU nationals, including British nationals have been able to travel with relative ease compared to their non-EU counterparts and have been unburdened by visa or work permit regimes. However, workplace rights violations, including labour exploitation and forced labour, are still a common occurrence for EU nationals, who make up 82% of potential victims identified as exploited for labour in the UK.

A high proportion of EU nationals in the UK work in the sectors that are susceptible to labour exploitation. 30% of nationals from Central and Eastern European countries work in so-called low-skilled jobs1, while 22% of all EU nationals work in distribution, hotels and restaurants2. Already EU citizens are vulnerable to labour exploitation and forced labour as a result of uncertainty about work rights, language barriers, and dependence on employers for accommodation. Post-Brexit the current vacuum of knowledge regarding rights and entitlements will create even more uncertainty for workers, and unscrupulous employers will exploit this uncertainty, thereby increasing worker vulnerability to labour exploitation and forced labour.

But in the short term, at least, the current laws still apply and workplace rights remain unchanged. Additionally, any attempt to roll back on employment rights will be hard fought by Trade Unions, NGOs and workers’ rights organisations. FLEX will continue to work with unions and migrant support organisations through the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group to understand the drivers of exploitation and in the coming months we will be working closely with our LEAG partners to monitor the impact of BREXIT on the working conditions of EU workers.

Without a doubt EU workers face an uncertain future. In order to protect these workers from abuse and exploitation it is essential to maintain and strengthen employment rights. Deregulatory forces, unleashed by BREXIT, may soon threaten these rights, and at FLEX we will work hard with our partners to ensure that workers are protected.