Comment: How to prepare for Brexit if you employ EU staff

By Gary McIndoe, solicitor and managing director at specialist business immigration law firm, Latitude Law.

As the poultry production and processing industry prepares for Brexit, employers of EU workers would be wise to consider how to retain and attract staff, and the following pointers may be useful.

  1. Free movement of workers

Until “Brexit Day” on 29th March 2018, the UK and EU will retain mutuality of free movement of workers, to be replaced by a 21 month transition period ending in December 2020. EU citizens arriving here during that period will enjoy the same rights and benefits as those already in the UK and will now also be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) following 5 years’ residence and subject to a detailed criminality check.

What the above means in practice is that the UK has granted itself an extended period of free movement, providing businesses a window of opportunity to access an European workforce that may be more difficult or expensive to reach by January 2021.

  1. Non-EU workers

Of course, some businesses are starting to look further afield than Europe to fill positions. However, this remains an expensive and onerous option for all but the most senior or highly-qualified roles. The current system does not provide options for unskilled workers, and skilled workers will need to obtain a visa, with employers also requiring a licence to sponsor. For the majority of employers, this route is neither cost or time effective.

  1. Planning for the future

Poultry production and processing businesses that rely upon EU workers should be considering what they can do to retain and attract these staff members before December 2020. Businesses should consider what could entice existing employees to stay, with a view to helping them obtain settled status and remaining employed. Employers may want to survey staff to understand what would be most appreciated.

HR support and advice around obtaining settled status may be of value; enhanced training, increased holiday allowances and financial incentives such as generous pension contributions are things to consider, as are simple, inexpensive perks such as a day off on employees’ birthdays. Bearing in mind that some will have children, and so family-friendly options are also worthwhile considering. Of course, employers should take detailed employment law and accounting advice before making changes to employment contracts.

  1. Post-Brexit employment of EU workers

The government has not revealed its plans for replacing free movement. However, what is clear is that certain industries (not least the poultry sector and wider meat processing industry) will still require both seasonal and long-term unskilled and semi-skilled labour – which isn’t always available domestically. It seems unrealistic to expect businesses to look further afield than Europe, where there is a workforce ready and able to assist. It will be interesting to see what the government does in terms of policy in this area, but in the meantime, HR functions should keep a close eye on what the government says and does, being ready to react quickly as necessary.

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