EU citizens are currently free to live and work in the UK without having to meet admission requirements, while non-EU nationals require visas. A vote to leave the EU could mean tighter controls on the migration of EU nationals, although it is not known if EU nationals would face the same requirements as non-EU nationals.
The UK’s current labour immigration policies for non-EU nationals place a strong emphasis on the skill level of the job when determining their eligibility to come to the UK for work.
The report found that three-quarters of EU citizens currently working in the UK would not meet current visa requirements to stay in the country if Britain leaves the EU.
This would rise to about 81% once new rules come into effect in April 2017, it added.
The study said that admission requirements would have quite different impacts in different UK regions, occupations, and industries, as well as for different profiles of migrants themselves.
It suggested that skill-based selection criteria, similar to that used for non-EU nationals, would affect employers’ ability to sponsor EU workers in some industries much more than others.
Some of the occupations and industries in which employers have relied most on workers from EU countries in recent years are those in which the smallest shares of jobs are currently eligible for work visas.
The distribution, hotels and restaurants industry category is the largest employer of EU-born workers, yet only 6% of all employees in this sector meet current visa requirements.
The public administration, education, health, banking and finance industries are also major employers of EU nationals. A larger share – albeit still a minority – of EU workers in these industries meet current visa requirements.
The study revealed that the hospitality and farming industries would be significantly affected by admission requirements for EU nationals, with 94% and 96% respectively of their non-British, EU employees unlikely to meet requirements.
About three-quarters of EU workers in the construction, manufacturing, energy and transport industries would not qualify under the current rules applied to other overseas workers.
The banking and financial sector — which includes professional services firms and management consultants, as well as the cleaners, back office staff and security guards that work for them — would also suffer, with 66% of EU workers ineligible for visas under current rules for non-EU workers.
“Most sectors of the U.K. labour market now have a significant EU migrant workforce — and many of these are lower-paid sectors, such as hotels and manufacturing,” Carlos Vargas-Silva, the author of the report, said.
The report acknowledges that it is not possible to know exactly how a vote to leave the EU would affect migration to the UK because forecasting migration under any policy regime is difficult and cannot be done with confidence and because the policies and agreements that would follow a vote the leave the EU are not known in advance.
“The biggest challenge with analysing the impacts of Brexit on migration is that we can’t know what policies EU citizens would face until after the referendum. Some scenarios involve almost no change to policy at all, while others would be a huge departure from the status quo,” Vargas-Silva said.
The report added that any move to impose admission requirements on EU nationals would be accompanied by a wholesale review of the immigration system overall, rather than simply applying to EU nationals the rules that currently exist for non-EU nationals. It predicted that this might involve less restrictive criteria for skilled work visas.
The research also predicts that programmes providing non-EU nationals with access to the UK labour market for work in certain low-skilled occupations such as agriculture and food processing could be reintroduced in the event of a vote to leave the EU.
However, Vargas-Silva added, “Even if the immigration system is redesigned after a Brexit vote, any system that selects EU workers based on skills and pay is likely to hit these sectors hardest.”