EU Workers in the UK, To Be or Not To Be?

eu workers

It is highly unlikely looking back that anyone could have ever predicted exactly what was going to happen to the  UK in 2015, you know the good old days before the referendum and indeed the plague of Covid, let alone England reaching a semi-final in a major international football competition.

But, life as they say is often stranger than fiction, and all you need to do is look at the UK employment market in the summer of 2021. There are officially 1.3 million unemployed people in the UK, a modest number some might say in a population of some 60 plus million folk. Apparently one in twenty struggle to find work, which is frankly surprising given that right now the UK has huge skill shortages across a whole range of sectors.

Last week alone James Reed, who heads up one of the country’s biggest and most respected recruitment Companies stated that in one day alone 18,000 jobs were posted.

A record amount by far, and the thing is that it is across a range of sectors that traditionally were partly filled by visiting workers from the EU.

The simple truth is that in reality as a direct result of both Brexit and Covid the very people who did the actual jobs have returned back to their native countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain etc.


Several reasons. Covid, of course has been an understandable factor, but so has Brexit and the new uncertainties that free job mobility offered before, that have now been replaced by bureaucracy, less freedom, and restrictions on health care, education, state benefits etc. Putting it simply, its more complicated and uncertain and they are finding jobs closer to home without the uncertainty and risk, as well as being close to loved ones during a pandemic that has already killed millions around the globe. Can you blame them?

So, what does this really mean to the UK economy right now? Well, the brutal reality is that sectors are struggling to fill job vacancies that are starting to directly impact on day to day trading.

The hospitality sector is one example, in the past traditionally younger people aged 16 to 24 would step in and fill the roles, however 16 months of lockdown have seen them walk away in droves. They have found other jobs with better conditions, i.e. daytime working, where they have been less inclined to take on customer facing jobs to avoid catching Covid.

 So what is the sector doing about it? Well, some are offering bounties. One restaurant chain is offering payments of up to two thousand pounds to employees who refer people to join. Others are offering other perks. But the reality is that it’s the actual conditions themselves that are putting UK workers off; working nights, average pay, compared to other sectors that give more life balance opportunities.

Another massive problem is in the haulage trade where it is estimated that there are a staggering 60,000 vacancies. Again, research indicates that a combination of mass migration from EU nationals plus DVLA (The Government agency responsible for driving tests and issuing of licences) has virtually shut down throughout Covid, so there is a massive logjam in the testing process. 

Those rare people who do pass their vocational driving test can name their price as haulage firms scramble to recruit them. Haribo sweets have announced that they are currently unable to supply shops as they are short of drivers. Agreed, not an essential to everyday life, but an example of one of so many companies that are now really struggling to put goods on shelves, and some of those will soon be essential life items, like medicines and other essentials for day to day life.

Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Minister announced this week that he is going to relax the laws slightly on HGV/LGV driver hours allowing an extra one hour of driving a day, from 9 hours maximum up to ten. This has simply annoyed the industry, and means drivers have to drive even more hours than before. They describe it as a ‘sticking plaster’ solution that ignores the real issue such as a basic lack of infrastructure like decent toilet and shower facilities (compare the UK to Germany to see how it should be) as well as fundamentals like low pay and tiny profit margins due to dictatorial payments by major supermarkets, as well as modern review of drivers hours and conditions in 2021.

Again a simple truth, Brexit resulted in many things, but one thing it did reveal is the British malaise of not wanting to do certain jobs, they were always happy to let good old Johnny Foreigner come over here and do the jobs that we don’t want to do. Examples include harvesting crops for farmers (back-breaking work that most Brits won’t do) to making sure that the NHS has enough doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, chefs etc to keep the nation fit and well during the biggest pandemic in a generation (for which Mr Johnson will reward them with a 1% pay rise).

In conclusion, some major challenges to be faced and some tough decisions need taking sooner rather than later. Ironically, chief Brexiter Tim Martin, owner of the Weatherspoons pub chain, who bellowed his support for Brexit, has now done an about turn and is calling for the government to reduce restrictions for foreign workers to come back and work in the hospitality trade as he can’t find enough staff from within the UK. It didn’t take him long to change his mind, did it.

So maybe football hasn’t come home this weekend and maybe the Italians have it for now. Either way one thing is for sure, those essential and valued EU workers who came over post accession and made the UK their home, won’t be coming home either, much to the regret of many, including me.

Austin Birks won an EU award in 2006 for his “outstanding contribution to the EU in 2006 European Year of Workers Mobility awards ceremony” for his work in recruiting bus drivers to First Group in the UK