EU migrants’ benefits and the U.K. EU-exit referendum

The researchers identified various factors affecting migrants’ willingness and ability to use tribunals, including: lack of knowledge of their rights, reluctance to engage with the judicial system and, for those in the United Kingdom for a short time, a desire to maximize their earnings that is prioritized over complaints about mistreatment.

Under current EU law, EU migrants have rights to equal treatment in their terms and conditions of employment offered to domestic workers.

However, this initial study suggests that when it comes to employment conditions these may be rights that “exist more “on paper” than in practice”, write the researchers.

“While we found good evidence to suggest that EU-8 workers were fairly treated by Employment Tribunal judges, navigating the system and accessing enough advice to understand the basic elements of the rights these workers are due is deeply problematic,” said Dr. Ludlow. 

“In interviews, we were told that largescale cuts to local authorities have had a negative impact on resources such as Citizen Advice Bureaus. These are important sources of guidance for workers who cannot afford legal advice, including workers from the EU.”

Professor Barnard said that the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees has meant that many workers are now priced out of claiming their employment rights. “If the Government is concerned about migrant workers’ undercutting employment terms and conditions and labor standards for domestic workers, our research suggests that resource needs to be directed to enabling migrant workers to enforce their rights, and to properly resourcing enforcement organizations such as the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority.”

Unlike some other EU Member States, the United Kingdom did not impose restrictions on the admission of workers coming from the so-called EU-8 countries (such as Poland and the Czech Republic), apart from the requirement to register under the Workers’ Registration Scheme.

Over a million EU-8 workers, taking advantage of their free movement rights under Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), have arrived in the United Kingdom since 2004. They enjoy rights to equal treatment in any social and tax advantages offered to domestic workers – including the payment of child benefit and ‘in-work benefits’ such as tax credits.

Barnard and Ludlow plan to use the research design from their employment enforcement study and apply it to social security tribunals, to help give some sense of the number of EU migrants who claim benefits and the nature of the cases in which they are involved. They will also interview EU migrants and those that work closely with them, to explore migrants’ hopes, expectations and experiences.

Early interviews have highlighted the importance of online grass roots communities such as Facebook groups for migrant workers seeking advice, and that stopping child benefit for EU migrants may result in fewer family units making the transition to the United Kingdom, and an increase in younger, unattached men working in the United Kingdom, who are likely to integrate less permanently within their host community.

While some interviewees are preparing to leave Britain, citing a better quality of life in their home nation (“I’m not interested in staying in the United Kingdom just because it’s possible”), the researchers also found migrant success stories.

One interviewee spoke of her determination to work in nursing: “I didn’t come to the United Kingdom just to work in any kind of job. Either I’m working my way towards nursing or, if that’s not possible, I’m going back.” After struggling through bar work and learning medical English on her days off, the woman is now a nurse in a local hospital.

“Many of the EU migrants we’ve talked to so far don’t understand our complex social security system; their only interest is in finding work,” said Dr. Ludlow.         

As well as one-to-one interviews and focus groups, the researchers will be making a documentary and providing migrant workers with disposable cameras. “It’s another way of trying to capture the migrant experience that offers an alternative insight to words on paper,” said Professor Barnard.

The project is a two-way process, she says, with minute-long podcasts summarizing relevant aspects of the law, which will be available on EU Migrant Worker Project later this month.

“What we can offer the migrant community in return is quite detailed knowledge of the law and their rights and how to enforce those rights, both to claim employment rights but also social security benefits.”

Added Dr. Ludlow: “Accusations that the United Kingdom has become a ‘honeypot nation’ has become a key issue in the debate about the U.K.’s membership of the EU.

“By gathering empirical evidence about EU migrants’ experiences of navigating the labour market and social security system in the United Kingdom, we hope to increase our understanding of EU and domestic law as it works in practice and to inform public opinion in anticipation of the referendum on 23 June and beyond.”