The UK Feeling Void Left By Workers From EU

EU Workers in the UK

Agnieszka Bleka has had to work hard in past years to find compa­nies that need workers, spending much of her day reaching out to local busi­nesses in the northern English city of Preston, where she is based.

But now, Ms. Bleka, who owns Work­force Consultants, a company that finds jobs in Britain for mostly Eastern and Central Europeans, said that she was fielding several calls a day from compa­nies looking for temporary staff, and that she can’t keep up with the demand.

“The fish pond is getting smaller,” she said. “And people are picking and choos­ing the jobs, or leaving as well, going to their home countries.”

Free movement between Britain and Europe technically ended at the start of 2021 because of Brexit, but the effects were masked by strict pandemic travel restrictions. Only lately, as the economy picks up steam, is the new reality begin­ning to be fully felt.

Migration experts say there is not enough reliable data to determine whether perceived shortages of workers are the result of Brexit, the pandemic or some combination of the two. It is also unclear whether they are temporary or reflect a more enduring shift. But there is little question that many companies are having considerable trouble filling jobs.

Ms. Bleka described it as “an employ­ees’ market,” particularly among the workers she typically places in jobs in in­dustrial warehouses, construction, land­scaping and other low-skilled jobs.

“It’s like 180 degrees,” she said. “Where we used to have lots of people and not so many vacancies to fill up, now it’s the other way around.”

Many Eastern Europeans who came to Britain after it granted open access to its labor markets in 2004 have settled permanently.

But others less tethered to Britain moved back to their home countries, even before the pandemic hit, particu­larly those from Eastern and Central Eu­rope who filled those lower-skilled jobs that now seem so tough to fill. Brexit and the anti-immigrant sentiment that helped drive it made many feel unwel­come, while others were discouraged by the sharp drop in the pound’s value after the vote to leave the European Union.

As a member of the Polish community whose children attend a Polish school in Preston, Ms. Bleka said the number of students had noticeably dropped since the pandemic began.

“There must be something that is tak­ing people back, and Covid definitely did­n’t help,” she said, noting that some workers may be finding a better quality of life and stronger economies in their home countries now than when they left.

Post-Brexit immigration changes, which use a points-based system, were intended to restrict the movement of lower-skilled workers from Europe in fa­vor of higher-skilled workers in special­ist roles.

Nevertheless, Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, a research body at Oxford University, said it was difficult to draw a direct line be­tween the changes in the country’s immi­gration system and the worker shortage. Lack of reliable migration data, the fact that some workers are still on furlough and the uncertainty of the pandemic have all made the true picture more opaque.

She has written about how the migra­tion data collected in Britain during the pandemic offers an imperfect picture, and warned that estimates of Europeans leaving by the hundreds of thousands may be way off. The true figure, she said, is more likely to be closer to tens of thou­sands.

But that could still be significant, she added.

“At the macro level, the impact of changing the system in this way is actu­ally not expected to be very big,” she said. “But for individual employers, it can be absolutely huge.”

Industries like food manufacturing and food processing, which have relied heavily on low-skilled European mi­grants, could find their growth ham­pered by a lack of workers, she noted.

Before Brexit, Ms. Sumption said, “What we might expect to see is that as recruitment picks up again, new people would come into the U.K. using their free movement rights, or people who had pre­viously left coming back.” Now, that is no longer an option.

The hospitality industry in Britain has been one of the major employers of Euro­pean migrants and is already suffering from an inability to recruit new arrivals.

When England’s first lockdown was lifted last summer, the Australian restau­rateur Bill Granger said he had encoun­tered no problem taking on staff for all four of his Granger & Co. locations in London. But this time around, he said, it has been a trial.

After a number of prolonged shut­downs, and with the added complica­tions of Brexit visa changes and broader travel restrictions, he said he had found that many of his former employees had moved on. Some, such as waiters and chefs from France, Hungary, Italy, Ro­mania and Spain, as well as Australian baristas, had returned home. Others had moved out of hospitality work entirely.

“We opened and closed, and opened again, and what’s happened now is we’ve lost all those people,” Mr. Granger said. Even with the added help of a newly con­tracted human resources team, the com­pany is still struggling to fill positions.

And with a smaller number of people working longer shifts because of the va­cancies, he said, his current staff mem­bers were stretched. “All our team are absolutely exhausted,” he said.

While some hospitality workers have taken the chance for a career change, others are still on furlough because of the pandemic and not ready to apply for new jobs yet.

Mr. Granger’s restaurants in London have in the past relied on an influx of young European and Australian re­cruits, who are no longer traveling in the numbers they once did because of tighter restrictions on movement.

“Everyone is happy to be back, but also just with losing people, it’s really, re­ally hard,” Mr. Granger said.

Jack Kennedy, an economist at Indeed, a job search site, said the demand for hospitality workers was outpacing the number of available workers across the sector.

“The job postings have been rising so fast and the supply of candidates just re­ally hasn’t been ablento keep up with that,” he said, adding that a reliance by some industries on foreign-born workers who may have left during the pandemic had probably been part of the problem.

But the dearth of employees is also driving up pay, he said, with hourly wages advertised for hospitality roles across the country increasing. That raises the question of whether other in­dustries struggling to fill roles will follow suit, and how big an impact on the econ­omy the shortages will have.

Ms. Sumption, of the Migration Obser­vatory, said she was surprised to see so many reports of shortages, because un­employment in Britain is actually quite high — and is higher among residents who hail from the European Union than among those born in the country. But, she noted, in industries like food manu­facturing and food processing, workers from European Union countries made up most of the staff, and those sectors could be feeling more of a crunch.

“Some employers have a business model that has really relied on free movement, and for those employers, there are much harder questions about how they deal with it,” she said. “Are they able to adjust to a world without free movement, or will they just do less, or even go out of business?”

“One of the kind of long-term impacts that one should expect to see is a change, not necessarily in the total economic prosperity of the U.K., but in the compo­sition of the economy” she said. “So we could have less growth in labor-intensive sectors that have relied on free move­ment.”

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