Since the decision was made to leave the European Union, employers have been left wondering what the implications on their workforce might be and how to deal with the consequences of Brexit.

Whilst the future remains uncertain, employers and employees should be reassured that the Free Movement Directive which allows European Economic Area (EEA) citizens and their dependants to live, work and study in any country within the EEA, will remain in force until the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. The EU and UK have agreed that there will then be an implementation period lasting until 31 December 2020. During this period individuals will be able to continue to exercise their free movement rights and the UK will remain party to existing EU trade deals.

Following the implementation period, any current European residence documents, including permanent residence cards, will be rendered invalid, so individuals will need to apply again under the new system. Those who have been in the UK for at least five years can apply for settled status. Those who do not have five years’ continuous residence can apply for pre-settled status, allowing them to remain in the UK until they do.

EEA Nationals arriving on or after 1st January 2021 will be subject to an immigration regime. They may be required to use the regime currently in place, meaning that, post-Brexit, EEA workers would typically be sponsored under tier 2 of the points-based system. This allows employers to employ skilled individuals to fill gaps in the UK labour force. This could create difficulties for employers trying to fill roles that are not deemed sufficiently skilled.

What do you need to do?

Although the exact shape of the Brexit agreement remains undecided, it is essential for employers to keep up to date with the proposals, and also to anticipate what the potential impact Brexit may have on their workforce. Here are some simple preliminary steps that employers can take in preparation:-

• Carry out an audit of the workforce to establish which employees are EEA nationals in the UK or British nationals in the EEA.
• Use employee data to assess the potential impact of Brexit on the workforce.
• Identify potential skills gaps and labour shortages and plan how to address these.
• Communicate with the workforce on the potential impact of Brexit and support available to employees.
• Understand the options for EEA workers to obtain evidence of their immigration status in the UK.
• Consider providing assistance with applications for permanent residence cards and/or naturalisation.
• Review policies and documents to identify those that may need to be amended as a result of Brexit.
• Prepare for HR involvement in strategic decisions on relocation.

In both its Brexit White Papers, the Government has stated its intention to create an immigration system to encourage “the brightest and the best” to come to the UK, but employers should also consider if an end to free movement could create skills gaps or labour shortages lower down the chain.

It is important that employers identify potential skills gaps and look at way these can be addressed before Brexit and implement a safeguard against finding it difficult to recruit certain roles post Brexit.