Brexit – what does it mean to our staff?

Since Article 50 was triggered by the UK Government on 19 March 2017, we have all been waiting for details of the negotiating stances of both the UK and the EU. For many European citizens working in London, uncertainty over the nature of the UK’s Brexit is causing particular anxiety.

Since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Moore Stephens has been providing commentary on the challenges facing our clients and discussing where and how we would be able to help them as they try to unravel the detail of the complex and varied negotiations. However, as a top 10 professional services firm we not only undertake significant business with EU countries, but also employ many people in the UK who originate from the EU27 (those countries that will remain in the EU).

Our staff are by far our greatest asset, so we wanted to understand their views about the ongoing uncertainty created by Brexit. Between 21 July and 4 August we ran a survey of the 104 London personnel who are citizens of EU27 countries. The survey was anonymous, asking some specific questions while also allowing respondents to explain their views. Despite the survey being undertaken during a holiday period, just under half (49%) of our eligible staff members responded.

Will they stay or will they go?

67% of respondents have been resident in the UK for more than three years and their responses indicate that they feel more secure in their residency as a result of this length of stay. However, with the Government considering five years’ continuous residence as the cut-off to qualify for settled status, this has naturally led to new uncertainty.
 

We asked people if, as a result of the Brexit vote, they were more likely to stay in the UK or to leave. Surprisingly, most respondents said the result had not affected the likelihood that they would stay. This suggests that their decision depends more on the outcome of Brexit negotiations rather than Brexit itself. Many are maintaining a watching brief as the pre-negotiation agreements are reached and the detailed Brexit negotiations subsequently get under way. Rather than drawing conclusions from an unclear situation, they are assuming things will continue as normal until key factors affecting their position become clearer. Only then will they decide whether their future lies in the UK or elsewhere.

Nevertheless, 41% said they were less likely to stay in the UK as a result of the Brexit vote. When we asked this group what they might do next, 39% said they were considering returning to their native country, while the other 61% are considering relocating to another EU27 country. No one was looking to move outside the EU.

We then asked questions about the impact of a hard or a soft Brexit. We didn’t define or interpret the meaning of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, leaving this up to the survey respondents. A large majority (76%) said a hard Brexit would make them feel less secure, while over half (53%) said they would feel more secure by a soft Brexit. (But even with a soft Brexit, 8% would still feel less secure.) 

These findings may not be a surprise but, given the Government’s outwardly hard-line stance, they give Moore Stephens cause for concern. We value the contributions of our EU colleagues and don’t want to lose their talent in London. In addition, the lack of security they feel cannot be good for the their well-being, nor for the departments that rely on their professionalism and productivity.
 
               

Key concerns

The survey gave respondents the opportunity to explain their key concerns surrounding Brexit. Broadly speaking, these can be grouped into three categories: personal (difficulties in working), social (considerations of social standing) and business (opportunities – current and future).

Personal

The rights they will have as EU nationals in the UK is obviously a concern for respondents, particularly for those who have not been here for five years. Most are questioning their rights to move between jobs in the UK and even to move between their native home and the UK. There are also concerns about how the impact of Brexit on the UK economy could affect respondents’ ability to ‘invest’ in the UK through housing and jobs.

Respondents are questioning their job security, especially if some areas of the firm are directly impacted by the loss of business from the EU. They are also worried that administrative requirements (e.g. obtaining visas, leave to remain) will become so onerous that it will discourage them from staying in the UK. Some people expressed a desire for Moore Stephens to provide support where possible, such as help in meeting the legal and administrative demands placed on EU staff.

Overall, where previously there was certainty, there is now a genuine fear for the future and how Brexit might affect both themselves and their families.

On the aspect of ‘due process’ some expressed a desire for Moore Stephens to assist where possible with support regarding the legal and administrative demands placed on EU staff. 

Social

Concern about the effect of Brexit on EU27 nationals’ social lives came across most strongly. Many respondents are feeling unwanted and undervalued in their adopted country and sensing, if not directly experiencing, racism and discrimination. Such feelings are triggered by the need to apply for visas despite having been resident in the UK for many years and contributing to taxes. The extent of anti-EU rhetoric feeds the perception that EU27 nationals could be viewed as second-class citizens.

Some respondents said they came to the UK not only for the job, but also for the lifestyle. The UK was seen as being open, cosmopolitan and welcoming – but all these qualities, it is felt, are now under threat.

Business

Most comments on the business theme were directed at the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote. Respondents felt that Brexit could only lead to a poorer economic climate in the UK, affecting the pound, the jobs market and housing. Respondents also thought that London would become devalued as a place to do business, with many international organisations looking to move operations and staff away from the capital and into other countries.

How should we respond?

These survey findings may hold no great surprises, but the extent of the uncertainty felt by the EU27 nationals working in London, whether in their social lives or in their work, is perhaps stronger than their colleagues realised. As an employer, it’s important that we show we understand the concerns of our EU27 staff and provide appropriate support. We can’t take away the uncertainty linked to the Brexit negotiations, but how we address the needs of our EU27 staff could be the litmus test for determining their future – whether they seek to stay with us in the UK, or look for opportunities elsewhere. 

A political viewpoint

There is more to this than just the employees of Moore Stephens. Indeed, there will be many other businesses in London for whom their employees will have similar views.  Whatever your political persuasion it is irrefutable that the current Brexit position is full of confusion.  

Even before the referendum in 2016 it was apparent that this was not simply a matter for discussion between politicians and, regardless of the over-simplistic ‘Yes/No’ question that was put to the country, people needed to hear the debate from those who understood the pros and cons of the EU, the customs union tariff arrangements, and the impact of the ECJ and all those laws and regulations that would somehow need to be transferred into the UK.  

Since it was only a ‘Yes/No’ question is it any wonder that our politicians cannot agree on the way forward? Each interprets the result differently. It was never a vote purely on freedom of movement – how could it be? It is amply demonstrated now that we need qualified and unqualified labour alike because we cannot find and train the resource we need.

Rightly or wrongly, the UK voted to leave but, having made that decision, it is now extremely important that this is a cross-party, cross-industry initiative to work out what we want and how best to negotiate with our European friends. The current situation is chaotic and 14 months after the vote we are none the wiser. For the sake of our staff and for the sake of this country we had better hope that our political leaders demonstrate that they too can do what we in our own strategy are trying to do – collaborate.