Of those small businesses surveyed, 13% would consider moving operations abroad in reaction to the extra strain Brexit might put on their workforce, while 8% would even consider shutting down, according to a study by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
“There is real concern among small firms with EU staff that they will lose access to the skills and labour their business needs to survive and grow”, said Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman.
A fifth of small businesses (21%) currently have EU employees, 72% of which hired their workers after they were already living in the UK.
The research found the majority of EU workers employed by small businesses are mid-skilled staff (47%). Examples include construction workers, nurses, mechanics and office managers.
“EU workers are a vital part of our economy, helping to plug chronic skills gaps across a wide range of sectors, and filling jobs in an already tight labour market. From packers, to mechanics, to graphic designers, small employers need to be able to hire the right person, for the right job at the right time”, stated Cherry.
Another fear is red tape, with 56% of small businesses with EU staff concerned about being required to enforce new immigration rules post-Brexit.
“Restrictions on immigration will be felt more acutely by small businesses," warned Cherry.
“They are least well-placed to cope with losing staff, or dealing with a burdensome application process from the government to retain and hire new staff.”
The vast majority of small businesses (95%) don’t even have experience using the UK’s points-based immigration system to recruit non-EU workers.
“Securing the right to remain for EU workers in the UK must be a priority. It’s also crucial small firms are given time after the UK leaves the EU to prepare for the new immigration arrangement.”
“There can’t be a sudden cliff edge preventing small firms from accessing the workers they need. This means having sensible transitional arrangements first, followed by the phased implementation of a new immigration system”, Cherry added.
This morning, Kier Starmer, shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, defended EU workers in his speech setting out Labour’s Brexit election manifesto.
“[EU nationals] are part of our society, and they should not be used as bargaining chips.”
“On day one of a Labour government, we will immediately guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit”, Starmer stated.
In December the Trades Union Congress and the British Chambers of Commerce called on prime minister Theresa May to end uncertainty for businesses by confirming that the government will give current EU migrants the right to remain after Brexit.