How Brexit will affect UK staff working overseas

While Brexit remains as murky as ever it will certainly have an impact on UK expats working in Europe. Here's what could happen and how HR should prepare

Much has been made of the impact Brexit is having on EU workers residing in the UK. But very little is said about the reverse: how it will affect the one million UK nationals working across the EU. Some have relocated on a long-term or permanent basis; while many more are temporarily seconded or commute across country borders on a regular basis.

Freedom of movement makes this possible, but the rights of these employees are further protected by the EU’s Posted Workers Directive, which agrees a core set of working principles to which all 27 EU members must abide. In essence it means an employer has one piece of guidance to follow when seconding staff rather than 27. But when this legislative infrastructure ceases to apply after Brexit what will happen to the UK expats working in the EU?

What to expect

As with most things Brexit-related the ensuing uncertainty is the main cause for concern. Yuichi Sekine, head of business immigration (UK) at Bird & Bird, tells HR magazine that the situation for UK nationals working in the EU is highly volatile and that there has been a lack of reciprocity on the part of EU member states around future arrangements.

“The UK government has been quite forthcoming... with the EU Settlement Scheme,” he comments. “But there are 27 possible different legal arrangements for UK nationals and they are being introduced or amended [on an ongoing basis] or not updated.”

This means there could be a different future agreement for every single country UK national staff reside in.

“That makes it much more cumbersome for HR because there’s no uniform approach,” Sekine warns, adding that some member states require foreign workers to register at their local authority, adding yet another layer of administration.

The extension to Article 50 has prolonged the confusion for UK overseas workers further, feels Sekine. When 29 March was looming as an exit date it created some much-needed pressure on all parties to agree their status. Without that pressure UK workers based in the EU continue to be unsure of their fate – as do the HR teams responsible for them.

Even when Brexit finally happens it could still take time to agree and implement any deal that replicates current legislation, Sekine says. “The fact that we haven’t got any kind of precedent makes it really difficult for politicians to agree, for any kind of legal system to adjust to that political agreement, and then for the local authorities to actually enforce this on the ground,” he says. “That machine has to be well oiled to be able to process these types of applications.”

How can HR plan for the unknown?

According to David Enser, head of cross-border employment and reward innovation at the RES Forum, there are some clearly-defined steps that HR leaders can take to prepare for any disruption. These include:

1. Know which employees are likely to be affected. Map out where they are and have a thorough knowledge of those populations.

2. Have a clear communications approach to keep employees up to date with information.

3. Take certain principle-based decisions as an organisation. “Of course organisations will want to support the continuation of residency status,” comments Enser. “But they won’t want to, I would imagine, support possible applications and changes of citizenship. I don’t think that’s a corporate role.”

4. Look at how you engage with works councils and any employee representative bodies: “They have to be engaged on this in most European jurisdictions, at least either for co-determination rights or a right to information,” says Enser.

5. Examine any broader risks. “You will have to look at how it will affect talent, sources of talent and immigration,” states Enser. “But you also have to look at the links to trade and customs and your supply chain. There are very big corporate tax, finance and foreign exchange considerations, which most companies will now build into a risk register.”

Anything else?

UK employers will still need to get a handle on the different working permissions offered by each member state, Enser adds. Such information now exists in a centralised location for UK employers to access, he highlights.

“If centralised guidance didn’t exist [employers] might have 27 HR managers in 27 countries researching local government websites and writing 27 reports, or having to engage a professional services consulting firm to do so,” he says.

But what about the implications for cross-border workers who travel across multiple EU states? “Have line managers map out where their projects are based and which countries UK national employees typically go to and where they spend most of their time,” advises Sekine.

“Come up with a plan to ensure a smooth work permit journey, so if a client says ‘I want you to do a project that involves x, y and z’ you already have a template you can go by.”

Check back tomorrow to hear how Brexit specifically impacts overseas workers in the travel industry

This piece appeared in the July – August 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk