Labour migration and stakeholders’ role in the making of Brexit

Chris Forde, Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change, University of Leeds
Gabriella Alberti, Leeds University Business School
Ioulia Bessa, Leeds University Business School
Zyama Ciupijus, Leeds University Business School
Jo Cutter, Leeds University Business School
Maisie Roberts, Leeds University Business School

Building on ongoing research on social partners in the ‘making of Brexit’ this paper focuses on the UK’s shifting migration regime and the role played by stakeholders’ in shaping the UK’s proposed exit from the EU. During politically driven and state-led change, regulatory spaces are redrawn as different actors attribute varied meanings to “re-regulation” (Martinez Lucio and MacKenzie, 2011). In the case of Brexit these range from views that perceive regulation as a burden, through to the ‘productive’ nature of migration controls creating precariousness in employment relations (Anderson, 2013), to more positive notions of re-regulation as an opportunity to enshrine transnational employment standards and social protections (Schiek et al. 2015).

Our argument is that it the regulatory space opened up over the last three years has resulted in many ‘effects of Brexit before Brexit’, only some of which are directly connected to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. For example, in areas of labour market policy making, Brexit has framed, shaped and constrained the range of possibilities in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices recommendations. The future direction of policy protecting workers’ rights in the UK is unclear as these are also being used as a ‘bargaining chip’ for the UK government to try and win parliamentary and public support for a preferred Brexit deal. The effects of the referendum vote appear to already be affecting migration to the UK from the EEA as the rate in late 2018 slowed to its lowest level since 2012 (ONS 2018).

In terms of the proposed migration regime post-Brexit, there remains considerable uncertainty following the publication of the White paper on migration in December 2018. Stakeholder views have shaped this White Paper, and positions continue to evolve and change. The effects of a work permit/visa system, for example, are complex to untangle, despite the relatively simplistic positions reached or argued by some stakeholders and think tanks. A work permit/visa system is likely to make it more expensive for employers to employ some migrant workers, yet these costs may be passed on to workers. Furthermore, for migrants, the system might make moving for work to the UK unattractive for many potential workers, particularly if the possibilities for acting strategically when making migration decisions (Alberti, 2014) are constrained.

Current proposals suggest migrant workers will be tied to a single employer or unable to move from one migration scheme to another once they are working in the UK for up to 12 months during the ‘transitional’ regime to 2025. This detrimental effect on the ability of migrants to initiate mobility may have implications for employers in attracting workers and may increase labour shortages. Such an argument has received less attention in UK public discourse because there is a tendency to assume that migrants would come to the UK under any conditions – a view which takes away agency from workers and neglects the decisions they make individually and as families.

Methodologically we draw from a ‘co-production’ approach to participatory research (Chatterton et al. 2018) fostering dialogue between the different Brexit players at the institutional and community levels to ask:

  • How are stakeholders’ voices shaping the future of labour mobility in a post-Brexit world?
  • How are activities and debates at multiple scales (regional/national/international) interacting in the making of Brexit, considering the ever extending transition towards a new migration regime?

Empirically the paper draws from analysis of recent and future communications from the UK Migration Advisory Committee, related submissions and evidence from stakeholders in key sectors of the migrant economy as well as from qualitative data from roundtables and focus groups with stakeholders (trade unions, employers and civil society) on the future of labour mobility regulation in post-Brexit UK.