Last reviewed 22 August 2018

There has been an exodus of Eastern Europeans from the UK since the Brexit vote. Gudrun Limbrick considers what the likely implications are for employment in this country.

As time has passed since the EU referendum, the ongoing Brexit negotiations seem no nearer to spelling out what the post-Brexit world will look like and what life will be like for those of us living in the UK. The vote to leave the EU, which took place in 2016, was, at least in part, motivated by a desire to keep the UK for British people and limit the number of non-British people living here. It would seem that one impact of the Brexit vote has been to see this begin to happen, even before the UK has left the EU and before any associated limits to the freedom of movement have been embedded in law.

An upturn in emigration

In the 12 months immediately following the Brexit vote, there was a decrease in net migration to the UK of 100,000 with 123,000 EU citizens leaving the UK. This compares with just 28,000 in the previous year. In 2017, a further 130,000 EU citizens left the UK (data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)).

Coined a “Brexodus”, this outflow of EU citizens is being blamed on the Brexit vote. People have been motivated to leave not only because of the uncertainty surrounding their status here in the UK once Brexit starts to happen, but also, reportedly, because of racism experienced since the Brexit vote, and perhaps also because of the sheer disappointment that their neighbours and local community voted to end their relationship with their home countries.

Of course, this exodus is taking place in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and despite it taking time to relocate, potentially uprooting family and business, it is also significantly expensive. Perhaps this suggests that more people will go as they have time to get everything organised.

A decline in people arriving

Compounding the impact on net migration, the numbers of people from the EU arriving have fallen at the same time as the numbers leaving have increased. In the first 12 months following the referendum, there was a fall in immigration numbers of 106,000 on the previous year — down to 230,000. A large proportion, 43% of the decrease, was in the number of people who were coming into the country without a job. The numbers coming in with a set job to go to remained pretty steady.

Similarly, it appears that there has been a decline in the number of UK university admissions from EU countries since Brexit. Despite the numbers increasing each year since 2012, numbers have fallen by 4.4% since the Brexit vote — this is the equivalent of 2500 students according to the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS) data.

Interestingly, there have also been some signs that British citizens are also thinking about leaving the UK in this post-referendum world. In the year after the referendum, 17,000 British citizens applied for citizenship of another EU country. Most markedly, applications for an Irish passport increased 1025% over the previous year.

Migration is a complex issue and there are many factors — age of the migrant, skills and experience and their future plans — which can impact on how migration affects the country to which they are going and also the country they are leaving.

The UK’s history is rich with periods of time in which we have been dependent on people from overseas moving to live here to take up particular types of work. Take Caribbean and Irish nurses in the 1950s for example. The effect that their arrival had on the ability of our health service to function effectively was very significant. In recent years, we have also been dependent on migrant workers to fill specific roles, notably in construction, the health service, agriculture and engineering. There have already been problems of filling some of these roles since people have left after the referendum.

The impact on employment

One of the popularly anticipated impacts of leaving the EU was that fewer immigrants to the country would mean that there would be more jobs for British people. This was a key factor in many media debates about leaving the EU. With more people leaving and fewer people coming in, one might assume that this will mean that there genuinely are now going to be more jobs for British people. The problem is that this assumes that we had an unemployment problem to start with. We probably will not notice that there are more jobs for British people now because there were enough jobs anyway.

Our problem rather, it could be argued, is that we do not actually have enough workers. The post-war baby boomers are now leaving work to retire; we have an ever-growing older population and we need people working and paying taxes in order to fund the pensions, health and care services needed to look after this older population. What Brexit is effectively doing is causing the working population to decrease and thus the older population to increase proportionately.

The second issue is that we have long had shortages in certain areas of work which have been traditionally difficult to resolve using British workers. Nursing is one such area, seasonal agriculture is another. In recent years, people from Eastern Europe have filled these roles. Their departure has not always led to British people filling the gaps but, instead, the gaps remain unfilled. Recent data released by NHS Digital has found significant numbers of unfilled posts with some areas of the country faring worse than others. For example, the Thames Valley region managed to hire just five nurses for 1957 advertised posts.

If these impacts develop enough momentum as emigration increases and immigration decreases, the effects on the economy could be catastrophic. As businesses compete for smaller numbers of applicants, wages rise and thus competitiveness declines and inflation rises putting the economy under enormous strain. And all this against the backdrop of the increasing costs of our aging population.

To add to this, we have had a hiccup recently in our otherwise confident and healthy employment figures. In the last quarter of 2017, unemployment rose unexpectedly to 4.4%, according to the ONS. This change appears to have been largely due to unemployment among young people aged 24 and under. It is interesting to see the phenomenon of unfilled jobs and an upturn in unemployment. While the figures have improved in the last reported quarter, this sort of volatility could be concerning into the future.

It seems clear that a reduction of immigration and an increase in foreigners leaving the UK is not only welcomed by some quarters but it’s the very reason that they cast their leave vote in the referendum. However, the impact of this decline in our working population can only be guessed at the moment. Some industry sectors will feel, or perhaps are feeling, the impact before others, and some areas of the country will thus be more affected than others. However, there is an impact to be felt on the country as a whole as businesses start to struggle to attract appropriate skills to fulfil the jobs that are needed.