Reducing the number of migrants workers from the EU: Very difficult balances

On Wednesday the Guardian newspaper published a copy of a leaked Home Office draft paper outlining possible post-Brexit UK policy on migrant labour.

Very significantly, the leaked paper envisages a tight regime where the burden of proof will rest with the employer- businesses are to give priority to UK origin people when attempting to fill vacancies. Only when this has proven very difficult will they be allowed to bring in low skilled workers from the EU.

Although the Home Office paper concentrates largely on UK-wide policy there is a Northern Ireland angle on this.

Jordan Buchanan, economist at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, said,

“Overall, about 80,000 jobs, or 9% of the total jobs in Northern Ireland are occupied from workers outside the UK or the Republic of Ireland. Most of these would be workers from other EU countries. Sectors such as Manufacturing, basic Private services, Hospitality and Health & Social Work are particularly reliant on migrant labour with some comprised of more than a fifth of migrant workers”.

Businesses could find it difficult transitioning to a world where labour supplies from the 26 other EU countries are less readily available [see Note 1 below]. Some assurance might be had from the fact that the Home Office claims it will be considering the evidence base relating to sectoral skills needs.

Marguerite McPeake, economist at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, said,

“Very significantly, there is an independent body responsible for advising government on where there are particular skills needs, which might justify in-migration. This body is the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). The MAC will also be considering whether there are particular needs at the level of each of the devolved jurisdictions”.

All in all, some difficult balances need to be struck- the UK government perceives that public opinion favours a substantial reduction in immigration (particularly low skilled) but the business sector argues for a continued relatively free access to outside labour supplies [see Note 2 below].


  1. 26 and not 27 because the UK government (like its Irish counterpart) has committed to maintain the Common Travel Area.
  2. The UUEPC, in a project led by Dr Eoin Magennis, is continuing to research the potential labour market impact of Brexit, particularly at the local authority level.