Migrant workers

Free movement,  a founding principle of the EU

There are 28 member states in the EU. The free movement of people is one of the fundamental rights of citizens of the EU. They have the right to study, work and retire in any member state. 

In the UK the same rights apply to citizens of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. The EEA equals the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

All workers need a NI number obtainable from the Department of Work and Pensions. Workers must contact HM Revenue and Customs for tax purposes.

There are some 3 million EU nationals living and working in the UK. Their status following the UK's departure from the EU in 2019 is still the subject of negotiation.

Impact of EU enlargements

In 2004, 10 countries joined the EU: Republic of Cyprus, Malta and eight countries from Eastern Europe, known as the A8 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia).

In 2004 only UK, Ireland and Sweden opened the labour market to A8 nationals. Other member states restricted access for a  period of seven years.  

In the UK A8 nationals had to register under the Workers Registration Scheme (WRS) unless they were self employed. The scheme closed on April 30, 2011. Workers don't now need permission to work.

In 2007 Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. Nationals from these countries are free to work in the same way as nationals from other EU countries.

In 2013 Croatia joined the EU.

Where do they come from?

The highest proportion of approved applicants from A8 countries came from Poland (66%), followed by Slovakia (10%) and Lithuania (9%). Note. There are many thousands of young French citizens working in London, sometimes referred to as France's sixth largest town!

What numbers are we talking about?

In the period May 2004 to September 2008, 932,000 EU citizens applied to work in the UK and 895,000 were approved. This was the largest and fastest migration ever into this country. The inflow was far higher than expected. The previous enlargement admitting Spain and Portugal in 1986 had not led to any significant migration.

By 2011 this number had exceeded one million but approximately half of these are thought to have returned home, particullarly to Poland.

The Office of National Statistics in a recent report (July 2017) shows that the A8 countries account for 1.3 million EU citizens living in the UK. 80 per cent of those aged between 16 and 64 in the survey period of 2013 to 2015 were in work.  

Where do they go?

The greatest numbers are to be found in East Anglia, the Midlands and London. There are large numbers in the South East.

What jobs do they do

EU citizens are to be found in a very wide range of employment from low-paid, unskilled seasonal workers in agriculture and food manufacturing, in hospitality and catering, to public services from bus drivers to doctors and dentists, to highly paid and highly skilled finance and management posts. The vast majority (78%) of A8 workers are young, aged 18 to mid 30s.

In the ONS study about one third of A8 citizens were in 'elementary' occupations, distribution, hospitality and manufacturing. Two in five were overqualified for the work they were doing.  

UK emigrants to other EU countries?

Possibly one and a half million, though numbers are difficult to track. Many UK citizens have chosen to retire in other member states, notably France, Spain and Republic Cyprus.