The number of EU nationals moving to Britain has plunged since Brexit closed the doors to low-wage workers, according to a report.
The dramatic decline in migration from the EU has hit hospitality and support services hard. But the Migration Observatory (MO) at the University of Oxford and ReWage, a group of independent experts, have said that while Brexit “exacerbated” chronic labor shortages in the UK, it was not the only cause.
Data shows that just 43,000 EU nationals received visas for work, family, study or other purposes in 2021, a fraction of the 230,000 to 430,000 EU nationals coming to the UK a year in the six years to March 2020, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates.
Of those who migrated – as opposed to traveling for business or pleasure – to the UK in 2021, EU nationals accounted for just 5% of visas issued. “The figures available so far are therefore consistent with the possibility of a large drop in EU immigration,” said the report, titled “The end of free movement and the low-wage workforce in the UK”.
But it cautions against blaming Brexit for the high number of vacancies in the UK, with the pandemic, early retirement among the over-50s, high employment levels across Europe and international labor shortages also contributing.
“While there is some evidence that the end of free movement has contributed to shortages in some areas of the UK labor market, it is by no means the only driver. In fact, recruitment difficulties are not unique to the UK, and several other countries have experienced high vacancy rates following the pandemic, says Chris Forde, professor at Leeds University and co-author of the report for ReWage.
The report found that hospitality and lower skilled sectors were worst hit by the end of free movement of EU citizens to the UK. Hospitality lost 98,000 EU citizens jobs in the two years to June 2021, and support services including cleaning and maintenance saw a reduction of 64,000 EU workers.
“While it is clear that an end to free movement has made it more difficult for employers in low-wage industries to recruit staff, changing immigration policy to address shortages presents its own challenges,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the MO.
The report found that some sectors were adapting to the changes in migration, but noted that filling low-wage vacancies would remain a problem. Sumption described immigration as “a bit of a blunt instrument”, noting that it was “surprisingly difficult to measure shortages and figure out how to target immigration policy towards them”.
Statistics from the Home Office show that there has been a sharp increase in migration amid the easing of pandemic restrictions. The data shows that 277,069 work-related visas were granted in the year ending March 2022 (including dependents), a 129% increase on the year ending March 2021 and a 50% increase on the year ending March 2020.
Analysis of paid staff by nationality over a longer period, between July 2014 and June 2021, showed that agriculture was also hit hard, losing 28% of EU workers, followed by hospitality with 25% and support services with 14%. The biggest fall in employment in the EU was in London, down 10% overall and down 30% in the hospitality sector alone between June 2019 and June 2021.
In several sectors, including construction and health, the number of non-EU citizens increased, but the report warns that these are not necessarily workers arriving via the visa route, and may come from the existing non-EU population in the UK who arrived on family visas or the refugee route.
Sumption said many other factors affected supply and demand, including taxation, the minimum wage, education and training and decisions on occupational shortage lists.
Experimental data captured by the ONS suggests that the highest vacancy rates are in Scotland and London.
The report says there are “competing explanations” for the rise in job vacancies, with the decision by people in their 50s to leave the workforce early “the main contributor to the decline in the size of the workforce compared to what might have been expected based on whether pre -pandemic trends”.