It is clear from the campaign and publicity since the referendum, that immigration will be a key battleground in the exit negotiations from the EU.
With so much uncertainty around the impact of Brexit on retailers, one of the key questions that we at Burges Salmon are being asked is what effect this will have on the ability to employ EU nationals.
How will the vote effect the immigration permission of EEA nationals currently working in the UK? How will it affect retailers’ ability to resource their businesses in the future?
At the moment, no-one knows but businesses can reassure employees that for now there has been no change in their immigration status. However, as Sports Direct boss, Dave Forsey, has acknowledged, immigration is a key area that retailers should be monitoring and considering as part of their business planning.
What happens next?
The key question is whether the principle of freedom of movement for nationals of any EEA countries will be maintained. If not, what alternative arrangements will be agreed?
The principle of freedom of movement has enabled retailers to recruit for any roles (including low skilled) from a wide pool of talent across all EEA countries.
A withdrawal from this principle will impose a significant restriction in the pool of people retailers can recruit from. Retailers may also face the prospect of existing employees losing the right to work for them.
There has been a lot of talk from the Leave campaign about controlling immigration through the extension of the ‘points based system’.
This is currently in operation for non-EEA workers and enables employers to register as ‘sponsors’ and sponsor workers who meet the minimum skill level and salary thresholds.
However, the current system does not provide any permission for lower skilled and paid roles and is not likely to be suitable for roles such as retail and warehouse assistants, or even store managers.
In addition, the costs of ‘sponsoring’ a worker under this system are increasing and are likely to put off any retailers recruiting for these types of roles.
If freedom of movement does fall away, it is widely hoped that a new route under the points based system or an entirely new scheme altogether will be introduced to fill the gap that would otherwise be left behind by these EEA workers.
So, what can retailers do now?
- Where there are concerns about the risk of losing key employees, or that a large part of the workforce is unsettled, businesses might want to provide reassurance to relevant employees that their current immigration permission is unaffected at the moment.
- Business planning to identify any key employees who may be affected by changes and whether there may be immigration options available to them to enable them to obtain permanent residence (or other longer term permission) enabling them to work in the UK.
- Carry out an audit to identify the number of EEA workers and any high risk areas within the workforce that may be affected by any change in immigration rules.
- Jamie Cameron is a senior associate in the employment law team at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon LLP