The impact of Brexit on the transient labour force

The UK workforce is dependent upon transient workers, the vast majority of whom are EU migrants. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, over 20% of people employed in 18 different industries across the UK are from EU countries, meaning that these industries actively rely upon EU migrants. Therefore, the impacts of the end of the free movement of people are likely to send significant shockwaves across the country as a fifth of the workforce of these industries has the potential (as well as the motivation) to leave their job.

While the government has insisted that EU workers who are currently employed in the UK job market are welcome to stay post-Brexit, and the vast majority of studies from the pro-leave side hypothesising that these people will stay, there are still many fears that this future will not come to pass. However, when the UK officially leaves the EU and the free movement of people is ended, there is still the possibility that vast quantities of EU migrants will return to their home countries, leaving their current jobs and causing both a skill and workforce shortage.

Will these jobs be filled?

It’s a commonly heard argument that EU migrants have ‘stolen’ jobs from UK nationals. That being the case, we would assume that all of these jobs will be filled by UK citizens the moment migrants leave. While that would be a nice, albeit optimistic, idea and would help to stabilise the job market in the longer term, this is unlikely to be the case.

Certainly, many of these jobs were unfilled before EU migrants took them, and this assumes that an unemployed UK citizen can replace an EU migrant like for like. However, this is not the case in reality. Significant numbers of EU migrants who initially took these vacancies were skilled workers – plumbers, bricklayers and plasterers all require a certain level of skills and experience to work professionally. As such, it is inconceivable that the UK will leave the EU without any negative effects on the labour force as the UK cannot field candidates at this precise moment in time with the same skillsets as those which will potentially be lost.

Transient workers

The fact that many of these EU nationals are employed as transient workers will also increase the effects of their loss from the job market. Transient workers are geographically flexible, which requires a certain mindset; while this lifestyle of travelling with work might be appealing to an economic migrant focused on money, it will be less appealing to a UK citizen who has established themselves in a certain location. It might cause a shift where increasing numbers of UK citizens in the job market have to consider becoming transient, and geographically flexible, but this would require a cultural shift which is not likely to occur quickly.

A huge amount of migrant workers are employed by the ‘processing and persevering sector’. Essentially meaning picking and packaging fruit and vegetables, the ONS reveals that 47.6% of the people employed in this sector are from the EU. At 44.4%, a similar proportion is found in meat processing and 37.6% are found in fish processing. A loss of even a fraction of these workers would cripple the industry, with many of the additional costs being passed onto the consumer.

The problem with judging the effects of Brexit on transient workers is that no statistics, surveys or econometric reports can accurately judge how these transient workers will react. However, we can safely assume that the removal of free trade, combined with more inward-looking government policy and an air of nationalism will cause many of these workers to consider their future in the UK.

Since the UK has so many industries reliant on EU transient workers, however, one thing we should be planning for is how to combat a potentially disastrous labour shortage.

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