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Study reveals impact of Brexit & Covid on EU key workers living in the UK

In-mid November, a piece outlining the results of a 2021 study involving 3 major UK universities shed light on how Covid and Brexit had impacted EU key workers living in the UK. The study, which included employees from the logistics industry, found that essential workers in logistics-related work categories were more likely to feel equal in the UK than in some other market sectors.

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Details of the study were published in an article on the Open Democracy website in November, in which researchers Kasia Narkowicz and Aneta Piekut, of Middlesex and Sheffield universities respectively, spelled out their findings.

The researchers found that the overall sense of belonging to the UK, and of feeling welcomed and at home, diminished following the pandemic. This, it is said, led many of the survey’s participants to debate whether to stay in the UK or return to Poland. “In interviews, many talked about feeling discriminated against and unwanted,” write Narkowicz and Piekut.

Given the highly-reported labour shortages in the UK, particularly in the logistics sector, we got in touch with two of the authors of the aforementioned research to find out to what degree EU nationals in essential logistics roles could be tempted to return home.

During our discussion concerning the data from the research, there were at least some good signs for UK logistics companies.

Firstly, in the two categories that contain logistics workers, ‘transport’ and ‘production, sale and delivery of necessary goods’, EU nationals were more likely to feel equal to their British counterparts than employees from most other categories.

In the case of the former, almost two-thirds of the respondents strongly or partially agreed that they felt equal as a migrant worker from Poland. As regards the latter, the equivalent figure was just over two-thirds. This compares favourably with categories such as ‘health and social care’, in which less than half of the respondents felt equal.

In addition, over 70% of survey respondents from the ‘transport’ category said they intended to stay in the UK, while over 64% of workers from ‘production, sale and delivery of necessary goods’ said they planned to do the same.

However, as authors Dr Anna Gawlewicz and Dr Aneta Piekut referred to during our conversation, there are still some potentially alarming findings. For example, around one third of the respondents in logistics-related categories either plan to leave the UK or are not sure of their plans. If this were to materialise across the country, the UK’s labour shortage would exacerbate further.

The research involved 1,105 online survey respondents, as well as a number of persons who participated in interviews. It was those discussions in particular that allowed the researchers to pick up on certain trends and prevalent attitudes among the interviewees.

According to Dr Aneta Piekut, Brexit was a common theme:

“With respect to the interviews, when we discussed stay or return plans in the UK, Brexit featured very strongly. The pandemic as an isolated circumstance didn’t really feature extensively in those interviews, but Brexit did. So those interviews indicate quite clearly that it’s primarily Brexit that motivates people to either migrate elsewhere or to move back to Poland . There are nonetheless some cases where the combination of both Covid and Brexit played a role. Overall, it was impossible to absolutely isolate Brexit and Covid in this study,” says Dr Aneta Piekut of Sheffield University.

Meanwhile, Dr Anna Gawlewicz had the following to say about the Brexit impact:

“I think these things are interconnected. When we talk about Brexit and attitudes towards immigration, these attitudes cannot be disentangled from the hostile environment policy in the UK, statements from some right-wing politicians, as well as from the narrative of the media, particularly tabloid media, towards migrant workers. I think all of that can have an impact on public attitudes towards immigration and in some cases translate to more hostile attitudes on the ground too,” Glasgow University’s Dr Anna Gawlewicz told trans.iNFO.

Gawlewicz added:

“Also with regards to Brexit, as scholars, we’re aware of wider social implications that are closely related to the legal situation. It’s not only the legal restrictions that Brexit imposes. It’s also all those implications in relation to the sense of belonging among migrants. The anti immigration-campaign that unfolded in the run up to the Brexit referendum in 2016 and continued thereafter has led to a lot of migrant workers feeling undervalued or unwanted. This is definitely something that many of our research participants were taking into consideration when thinking about their settlement plans .”

Will there be a significant withdrawal of EU workers from the UK labour market? The complex social and economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made answering this question even more difficult.

“We have seen a significant decline in migration from Poland to the UK – a community of 1 mln (as of 2016) has shrunk into 760 thousand. Recent arrivals from Poland are lower than a few years ago. So the UK is seen as a less likely migration destination. Research participants shared concerns regarding short-term visits and sharing care responsibilities across borders, with a growing sense that Poland was further away because of Brexit,” says Dr Aneta Piekut.