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What ‘Thin Brexit’ Could Mean for UK Jobs

With just weeks to go until the Brexit transition period ends on December 31, the precise nature of Britain’s relationship with the European Economic Area (EEA) going into 2021 remains unclear. Significant divisions remain between the positions of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and David Frost, his British counterpart. Despite assurances that both sides are redoubling their efforts to find a compromise, access to UK fishing waters and disagreements around trading standards and state subsidies continue to hold up talks.

What has become abundantly clear is that any deal that is reached in time for January 2021 will be a ‘thin’ one, focusing on ensuring goods can be traded without unnecessary quotas or tariffs.  “Disruption of some sort is likely,” says Carolyn Fairbairn, the outgoing director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). “Any deal we get now is likely to be focused on goods, and it should be treated as a starting point for a more comprehensive deal in the future.”

As we’ve seen this year, market disruption often means job losses. The Financial Times reports that the number of employees on UK payrolls plummeted by 730,000 between March and July due to COVID-19.

Of course, many migrant workers depend on their jobs in order to afford to relocate to and live in the UK. So, workers in sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic – such as retail, hospitality and aviation – may be particularly concerned about what the future has in store.

Working in post-Brexit Britain: What we know so far

The ONS reports that net migration from the EU to the UK has fallen since the 2016 Brexit vote. Concomitantly, this decline has been more than offset by a rise in non-EU migration, as more people come to the UK to study.

However, a new points-based immigrations system will come into force on January 1, 2021. As a Home Office spokesperson recently told The National, this system will make it harder for unskilled workers from anywhere in the world (except Ireland) to come to this UK.

“Our new points-based immigration system is based on what people have to offer,” they say. “We must be realistic about the effect the coronavirus has had and focus on those people already in the UK, upskilling our current workforce rather than relying on cheap labour from abroad.” Under the new system, workers from outside the UK and Ireland will need to earn 70 points to be eligible to work in the UK.

Speaking English and having a job offer from an approved employer at an appropriate skill level is worth 50 points. For the other 20 points, applicants must have a PhD (ideally in a STEM subject) or have accepted a job that’s high-paying or in an occupation where there is a shortage of British workers. Multinational companies can also relocate staff in graduate-level-or-above roles into the UK in certain circumstances.

Alternatively, international students who complete a UK degree from summer 2021 can apply for a Graduate Visa. This will let them stay in the UK for a period to gain the experience they need to secure a job that opens the door to long-term residency. Employers will also have to pay a £1,000-per-year Immigration Skills Charge for each migrant worker they have on the books. At least one survey has found that this may deter some employers from hiring staff from outside the UK and Ireland.


These immigration rules are stricter than the old ones. But they are more flexible than the immigration caps some political parties have flirted with in the past. It will still be possible for many people to move to the UK to work after Brexit. The question is, how many jobs will there be to go around in a post-COVID world?

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