The worst of both worlds: EU workers between Coronavirus and Brexit

Published 19 May 2020 / By Denny Pencheva

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


Eastern Europeans in the UK - the enemy from within?

The matter of intra-EU mobility - or the mobility of EU nationals from one member state to another - has gained particular prominence following the Eastern EU enlargement. Political and public concerns over the pace and scale of influx have manifested in British print media. My own work on media representations of Bulgarians and Romanians shows that prior to their EU accession and during the seven-year transitional period that followed, British print media portrayed them in a rather securitised and post-truth discourse.

Such representations have elevated existing anti-immigration tropes related to stealing jobs, benefits fraud, and criminal activities to new heights. The very existence of intra-EU mobility within a permissive legal and policy framework has amplified the perception of a threat from within, as well as the lack of state control and knowability of how many people come in and out of the UK.

Anxieties about Eastern European migration to the UK have also fuelled Euroscepticism and have been a decisive factor for Brexit. Indeed, one of the promises of the Leave campaign was to end the freedom of movement and to subject intra-EU mobility to the same rules that govern non-EU migration to the UK. In a zero-sum conceptualisation of the British immigration system, EU nationals have been accused of “jumping the queue”, i.e. their mobility rights infringe upon the mobility opportunities of non-EU nationals.

From stealing jobs to key workers

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic showed that many essential jobs are done by migrant workers: 1 in 5 migrants work in health and care, whereas 40 % of all food manufacturing jobs are made up of migrants. EU migrants specifically make up the majority workforce in food production and processing, agriculture and hospitality and often work anti-social hours for low pay and on insecure contracts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic EU workers in general, Bulgarians and Romanians in particular, have stepped up to the plate providing essential labour and services for Britain. This is evident by the continuous efforts of labour suppliers to fly in Bulgarian and Romanian seasonal workers amidst acute labour shortages in the agricultural sector. Yet, many of these key workers will be hit the hardest once the pandemic-driven demand is over and Brexit is back on the agenda.

COVID-19 and post-Brexit migration policy

Despite their invaluable contributions during the COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority of EU workers wouldn’t be welcomed under the new points-based system due to be implemented in January 2021. The main objective of this system is to reduce the alleged over-reliance of sectors of the British economy on “low-skilled” EU workers. This is despite evidence that the overall levels of EU migration continue to decline.

There has been a huge rift between how politically problematic EU workers are, and how economically useful they are. A rift that Home Secretary Priti Patel has been all too willing to exploit in proposing changes, such as salary thresholds and English language requirements, which will disproportionately affect Eastern Europeans arriving in the UK after Brexit. In their current form, the new immigration proposals do not outline specific policy routes for low-skilled and/or temporary migration. Indeed, this type of migration is presented as the main problem that needs fixing. The proposals aspire to halt low-skilled migration from the EU whilst suggesting that EU nationals already living in the UK with either pre-settled or settled status will make up for any labour shortages.

However, the political determination to take back control over matters of immigration, coupled with restrictive proposals and vague guidance for employers risk evolving into the perfect storm, which will trap many pre and post Brexit EU workers into a limbo.

Those hoping to arrive after Brexit would be vulnerable to unscrupulous recruitment and employment practices, especially if the UK leaves on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, under which low-skilled migration could happen by stealth. Whilst the current EU regime has safeguards with regard to temporary and/or posted workers, the temporary mobility of workers under WTO rules is more precarious and deregulated.

For those Bulgarians and Romanians already in the UK, things might not be easier as they are overrepresented in the lower end of the labour market, dominated by precarious work. These workers are more likely to be laid off than furloughed as the Job Retention Scheme tends to have adverse effects on temporary workers. Further, accounts that EU nationals with pre-settled status have been denied access to social benefits, such as Universal Credit, suggest that they are experiencing the worst of both worlds: COVID-19 induced economic hardship and Brexit related discrimination.


Dr Denny Pencheva is a Senior Teaching Associate in Migration Studies, at the University of Bristol.