Media Release

88% of current EU workers in UK would not be eligible for a visa

New research released today by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank, in partnership with Adecco Group UK & Ireland, has highlighted the potential impact on the UK labour market should employers face restrictions on the recruitment of EU workers as a consequence of leaving the EU.

  • 6 million EU workers currently work in the UK, making up 6% of all UK employees
  • 88% of them would not qualify for a visa under current rules 
  • London has the highest proportion (13%) of EU employees as a share of its workforce, but three quarters of these EU workers would not meet the current visa requirements.

Working Together? The impact of the EU referendum on UK employers shows that 88% of current EU workers in the UK would not qualify under existing visa rules for non-EU migrants. UK employers remain heavily reliant on EU workers, with the 1.6 million EU workers currently employed in the public or private sectors making up 6% of all UK employees.

The research is based on an analysis of the potential labour market impact of a ‘Leave’ vote and subsequent change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Under a scenario where free movement of labour no-longer applies, the analysis reveals that applying current UK visa requirements for non-EEA workers on EEA workers could have a severe impact on the UK labour market.

Key findings from Working Together? show that if the current UK visa policy that applies to non-EU employees were applied to EU workers:

  • Only 12% of current EU workers in the UK would qualify, with an even lower share of private sector employees qualifying.
  • 10% of London employees would not qualify under the visa rules, despite a relatively large proportion of London-based EU workers being on comparatively high salaries and in graduate occupations. At around 13%, London has the highest proportion of EU workers of all UK cities.
  • While ‘accommodation and food services’ has the largest proportion of EU employees –amounting to almost 14% of all employees in the sector – only a negligible proportion (less than 1%) would qualify and meet all three requirements of the visa system.
  • Almost all workers in manufacturing, agriculture, administration and support, and transport sectors would not fit the visa requirements, despite these sectors employing large numbers of EU workers.
  • Applying an earnings qualification particularly penalises part-time workers. Although 5% of all part-time workers are from the EU, almost all would fail to meet the current visa requirements. This means that the potential effect from moving away from free movement and towards an immigration policy similar to the one we currently have in place for non-EU workers could mean a loss in flexibility, with fewer workers available to recruit for part-time work.

Working Together? also describes the jobs and characteristics of EU employees in the UK and reveals the extent to which UK employers have recruited from the EU:

  • There are currently 1.6 million EU workers employed in the public or private sectors, making up 6% of all UK employees. They are more likely to work full-time (79% compared to 70%) and are more likely to be employed in the private sector (85% compared to 73%), compared to UK born employees.
  • Employers in London, the East of England, the East Midlands and the South East are particularly reliant on EU employees, as are those in Northern Ireland. In London, one in eight (13%) of all employees is from the EU.
  • EU employees are particularly prevalent in specific sectors such as manufacturing (10% of employees) and accommodation and food services (14% of employees).
  • EU employees are on average educated to a higher level than UK-born employees. For example, only 15% of EU employees have left formal education before the age of 17 compared to 44% of UK-born employees. 42% of EU employees were educated beyond the age of 21 compared to 24% of UK-born employees.

Nigel Keohane, co-author and director of research at the Social Market Foundation, commented:

“Our research shows the reliance that UK employers have on EU workers.

“In the event of a vote to leave we do not know what immigration regime would take the place of free movement. Our analysis of the potential effects of applying the current visa policy for non-European workers to EU workers and other potential strategies reveals the potential scale of the effect on UK employers.”

Adam Hawkins, Managing Director and Board Member at Adecco Group UK & Ireland, commented:

“Under a scenario where free movement of labour no longer applies and EU workers were subjected to the same visa requirements that are currently in place for non-EEA workers, 88% of EU workers currently working in the UK would fail to qualify. Filling this gap may pose a real challenge for UK employers.

“With 1.6 million EU workers currently making up around 6% of the UK workforce, it is clear that a severe change to our relationship with the European Union could provide a serious challenge to thousands of British businesses.”


Notes to editors

  1. In this press release, we use the terms “EU workers” and “EU employees” to refer to workers and employees from the EEA and Switzerland (excluding the UK).
  1. A copy of Working Together? The impact of the EU referendum on UK employers is available on request.
  1. The research comes ahead of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union on 23 June 2016, the outcome of which is likely to determine how UK employers will be able to access EU workers in the future. UK employers currently have access to workers in the European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss citizens, who are permitted to seek work in any other country that is a member of the EU and the EEA. The EEA includes the EU as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
  1. The analysis looked at three different outcomes for the UK’s regulatory relationship with the EU if the UK were to vote to leave. These include: membership of the EEA, membership of the EFTA and a scenario where the UK develops a bilateral trade agreement with the EU (as Canada has done).
  1. As well as assessing the impact of the applying the current visa policy, the report also analyses the potential effect of introducing a visa based on skills and experience.
  2. The research draws on analysis of the Labour Force Survey (2015), the largest household survey in the UK of employment and unemployment.

Interviews, comment or media enquiries

  • Nigel Keohane, SMF research director, is available for interview and comment on request. Please contact Sean O’Brien at the SMF on
  • Adam Hawkins, Managing Director and Board Member at Adecco Group UK & Ireland is available for interview and comment. Please contact Sam Williams at MHP Communications on / 07741 249 139.

For further details about the research, please contact:

Sean O’Brien
Social Market Foundation

About the report
This research was carried out in partnership with Adecco Group UK & Ireland. The Social Market Foundation retains full editorial control over all of its outputs.

About the Social Market Foundation

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

About Adecco Group UK & Ireland
The Adecco Group, based in Zurich, Switzerland, is the world’s leading provider of HR solutions. With more than 32,000 FTE employees and around 5,100 branches in over 60 countries and territories around the world, Adecco Group offers a wide variety of services, connecting around 700,000 associates with our clients every day. The services offered fall into the broad categories of temporary staffing, permanent placement, career transition and talent development, as well as outsourcing and consulting. The Adecco Group is a Fortune Global 500 company. In the UK & Ireland alone, Adecco Group has over 200 branches and a client base of organisations from all areas of commerce and industry. Adecco Group UK & Ireland retains over 35,000 temporary workers with around 250 permanent staff placed each week. Adecco Group UK & Ireland comprises Adecco, Ajilon, Badenoch & Clark, Computer People, Judd Farris, Modis, Office Angels, Pontoon, Roevin, Spring Personnel, Spring Technology and Spring Telecommunications. Adecco S.A. is registered in Switzerland (ISIN: CH0012138605) and listed on the SIX Swiss Exchange (ADEN).


Related items:

Page 1 of 1