With the UK set to leave the EU in a matter of months, leading lawyers are issuing a call to businesses across sectors to make 11th hour preparations to secure their workforces before Brexit. As of 31 December 2020, free movement will end, posing extreme challenges for main and subcontractors, which currently rely on EU migrant labour.
Many UK construction businesses have utilised migrant labour in recent years and, come January, those businesses whose workforces have consisted of a large percentage of lower skilled migrant workers sourced from the EU will run into difficulties, as many salaries will not meet the new minimum salary threshold imposed by the government under the new system.
After spending the past six months dealing with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of further Brexit-related workforce issues is the last thing the construction sector needs.
In order to prepare for the upcoming changes, businesses must do everything in their power to make last minute preparations where possible. These include ensuring that they have the necessary sponsor licence in place to hire skilled workers, regulating the status of their current EU workforces by ensuring that all those eligible have applied for, or are in the process of registering under the EU Settlement Scheme, and where possible bringing forward recruitment plans to hire Europeans, before the end of the transition period.
After mixed messaging from Government throughout the Brexit process, a policy statement on the new immigration system was laid out in February this year with a ‘Further Details’ statement published in July 2020. However, with the Home Office swamped with applications and working through a significant backlog, businesses looking to apply for a sponsor licence may experience significant delays.
Tijen Ahmet, head of business immigration at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau, said: “It’s getting close to the line now and the reality is that any business that employs Europeans from next year will find themselves in a tough position if they haven’t got the necessary sponsor licence and compliance processes in place by now.
“Smaller companies may still be able to secure their workforce ahead of the Brexit date, however larger corporates whose workforces are made up of a high percentage of migrant workers have a tough task ahead of them. The Government hasn’t helped this process and with it taking up to six months to obtain a sponsor licence in some cases, even those businesses, which have been proactive risk getting caught out.”
However, Ahmet believes that whilst time is running out, it is still worth business owners and HR departments doing all they can to secure their European workforces today and before 30 June 2021 when the EU Settlement Scheme is due to close.
She continues: “If businesses want to employ Europeans in future, getting the ball rolling now would be hugely advantageous. Whilst the current system is in place, EU citizens can enter the UK with their EU passport or ID card and begin to work. As of January, that simply won’t be possible.
“There are tough times ahead for us all, especially as the country grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic. The international talent pool is set to become much smaller, however there are steps which can be taken, even in the short term. The worst thing any business can do is bury its head in the sand and think that everything will continue as normal after 1 January 2021– any action is better than no action at all.”