NIESR Press Release: Businesses sound the alarm over immigration as Brexit negotiations begin

Published: 19th June 2017

New NIESR research with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) highlights need for flexible, affordable and straightforward immigration system to prevent skill and labour shortages damaging UK economy

  • 25% of organisations say a requirement for a job offer for EU migrants would have a negative impact on them.
  • The main reason employers recruit EU nationals is because they cannot fill low or semi-skilled jobs with UK-born applicants, cited by 35% of low-wage industry firms
  • One in ten (11%) of businesses say the number of EU nationals they have recruited since Brexit has decreased
  • 1 in 5 organisations say they are considering relocating all or part of their UK operations outside the UK (11%) or will focus future growth outside the UK (9%) as a result of the vote to leave the EU.

The end of free movement of people from the EU, will damage UK businesses and public service delivery unless post-Brexit immigration policies take account of the need for both skilled and unskilled labour from the EU. This is a key message in new research from the National Institute and the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.

It also calls on businesses to broaden their recruitment and people development strategies to ensure they are doing all they can to attract UK born workers and highlights the need for significant changes to Government skills policy.

The research, Facing the future: tackling labour and skills shortages post-Brexit, analyses employers’ perspectives on migration restrictions following the end of free movement and is based on a survey of more than 1,000 organisations, employer focus groups held around the UK and in-depth interviews with HR leaders.

The qualitative research from the focus groups and case study interviews reveals many employers have difficulty attracting sufficient UK nationals to work in low paid and low-skilled jobs particularly where hours are anti-social or the work environment challenging - especially in regions such as the East Midlands and South West of England.  This is despite offering higher pay and investing in the skills of the workforce in some cases.  However employers in low paid sectors such as retail and hospitality are more likely to report they employ EU migrants because they have lower expectations around pay and employment conditions (15%) than the all employer average in the survey (7%).

Some employers participating in the CIPD/NIESR research have already take action to widen their recruitment channels to boost employment of disadvantaged groups in the labour market and raise pay in response to migration restrictions, especially in sectors such as retail where the proportion of EU nationals in low-skilled roles is relatively high. 

However, there is considerable scepticism among some employers over whether efforts to attract a wider range of UK candidates will prove sufficient, particularly among organisations in sectors such as food manufacturing, hospitality and care which have historically relied on migrant workers.

Heather Rolfe, Associate Research Director at NIESR stated that: “Our research adds further weight to evidence that employers don’t recruit EU migrants in preference to British workers, but because they attract too few British applicants. Ideally, many employers would like to recruit more young people but working in a meat factory or a care home is not top of the list for school leavers now, and never has been.”

”It would be very unwise indeed for the Government to end free movement without putting in place new policies which enable employers to meet their needs for lower skilled labour. Our key sectors and services will suffer damage if policies to replace free movement are introduced in haste and are costly, complex and bureaucratic.”

Gerwyn Davies, CIPD labour market adviser, commented: “Access to skilled and un-skilled labour is a huge concern for employers. If the Government does not provide a user-friendly, flexible and affordable immigration system for EU nationals post Brexit, as set out in our recommendations, significant numbers of employers will be forced to relocate or focus future growth outside the UK.

“With the Brexit negotiations starting this week, there is still little clarity on the immigration system that the UK will adopt after Brexit. An overly blinkered approach focused on simply cutting immigration to tens of thousands and focusing only on high skilled employees could leave employers high and dry, especially those who rely on EU migrants to fill low-skilled jobs. The Government must therefore consult far more widely about their plans and invite employers to play a key role in shaping the future of UK immigration policy to ensure it works for businesses and the economy.

“Our research also suggests that while Brexit will encourage some employers to work harder to recruit local candidates and people from under-represented groups in the UK, many employers are already doing all they can to build links with schools, provide apprenticeships and invest in training and yet are unable to find the skills and people they need.”

The report recommends that future immigration policy to replace free movement must be:


  • New policies for EU nationals should be aligned as closely as possible with the existing points based system for non EU nationals
  • Government should avoid introducing a complex array of sector or regional based immigration policies which could lead to disparities and unfairness
  • Any changes to immigration policy for EU citizens should be introduced at the end of a three-year transitional period once negotiations are completed


  • Government should review and expand the labour shortage occupation list for EU nationals to include jobs at lower levels of skills and salary where there is evidence that labour shortages are difficult address and damaging to employers
  • Government should review the Resident Labour Market Test and make it more appropriate for employers facing damaging labour shortages by reducing the requirement to advertise jobs through Job Centre Plus from 28 to 14 days
  • The Youth Mobility Scheme should be extended to all 18-30 year old EU migrants and EU students with a bachelor’s degree or above should be allowed to remain in the UK, without requiring a job, for two years


  • In applying the existing points-based system for non EU workers to EU workers, Government should halve the sponsorship licence fee for public sector employers and review the other costs that employers are subject to, for example the health surcharge, the skills levy and the fee to for every non-EU national they employ.




Notes to editor

  • A full copy of the report is available here.
  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1,060 senior HR professionals. Fieldwork was undertaken between 1st and 30th March, 2017.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of the UK business population.
  • The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) aims to promote, through quantitative and qualitative research, a deeper understanding of the interaction of economic and social forces that affect people's lives, and the ways in which policies can improve them.
  • For NIESR press inquiries and interview requests please contact Paola Buonadona at p.buonadonna [at] or on 07710 484152
  • The CIPD is the professional body for HR and people development. The not for profit organisation champions better work and working lives and has been setting the benchmark for excellence in people and organisation development for more than 100 years. It has a community of over 140,000 members across the world, provides thought leadership through independent research on the world of work, and offers professional training and accreditation for those working in HR and learning and development.
  • For CIPD press inquiries and interview requests please contact  Ben Rathe  at press [at] or on 07803453341

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