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Non-EU workers outnumber EU ones in various UK sectors in post-Brexit shift

There are now more non-EU than EU workers in a number of sectors that were previously reliant on European citizens, demonstrating the Brexit effect and the impact of international events on immigration patterns.

Guardian analysis shows that the number of non-EU workers surpassed their EU counterparts for the first time in 2022, at an average of 2.7 million against 2.5 million workers last year.


It also shows that various sectors which once relied on EU workers – such as food services, admin, wholesale and retail have shifted towards non-EU and British employees.


Other sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fishing still depend on EU workers, but have witnessed changes. About one in seven people employed in the sector last summer were EU citizens, a significant decline from the 23% before the pandemic. The proportion of non-EU workers has risen to 6%, compared with 2% in 2019 and 1% before the Brexit referendum.


The director of Oxford University’s migration observatory, Madeleine Sumption, said Brexit had contributed to the shift with decisions such as the work visa system for care workers and the liberalisation of post-study work rules for international students, but “it is definitely not the only thing going on”.


“The Brexit policies restricted migration into low-wage industries,” she said. “However, this migration into low-wage industries ended up happening anyway, for other reasons that were not part of the Brexit prospectus, such as the Hong Kong and Ukraine schemes, and increased demand from the NHS.”


Before 2020 two-thirds of foreign workers in the hospitality and administrative services sectors were EU citizens, as well as half of those in wholesale, vehicle retail and repair, and the mining sector. Now they make up fewer than half of non-UK-born workers, according to HMRC data.


Data from 2014 - 2022

The analysis shows that the number of non-EU workers has risen steadily since 2014, the first year for which data is available, but it accelerated from the beginning of 2021 to reach almost 3 million by December 2022, a 40% increase in two years.

The number of EU workers remained stable over the same period with an increase of just 1% between December 2020 and December 2022, coinciding with the end of freedom of movement at the end of 2020.

Pre-Brexit forecasts suggested industries which had previously relied heavily on EU workers “would struggle to recruit migrant workers because most of the jobs were not considered skilled enough to qualify for the immigration system”, said Sumption.

“But the reality has been quite different. All major industries have increased recruitment of non-EU workers, often sharply,” she said. This was mainly because “more non-EU citizens have come to the UK in non-work routes that allow them to work in any job … and perhaps also [there is recruitment of] family members of visa holders or international students, who are allowed to work part-time during their studies”.


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