EU migration after Brexit: High-skilled good, low-skilled bad?


“We can control immigration and have a system which welcomes people to the UK based on the skills they have, not the passports they hold”. This was one of the key points in the Vote Leave campaign literature almost three years ago. Two years later, the 2018 Immigration White Paper adopted this message. The foreword written by the Prime Minister reads: “This will be a system where it is workers’ skills that matter, not which country they come from”.

It is workers’ skills that matter, but some skills matter more than others. High-skilled, high-earning migrants are prioritised under the new system. But what does high-skilled mean? The Migration Advisory Committee report on EEA migration proposed a £30,000 salary threshold to distinguish between the desirable high-skilled migrants, who could still arrive with little restrictions, compared to their less desirable lower skilled counterparts, who will have their migration routes significantly limited.

After the publication of the MAC report and later on the Immigration White Paper, numerous industries and organisations have been critical of the proposals, concerned that these will only exacerbate existing skill shortages in key industries in the UK. Yet the political message has remained strong and stable: the ‘brightest and the best’ migrants are always welcome, but low skilled migration needs to be limited. Is this a Brexit paradox?

Limiting low skilled migration is often justified in reference to public opinion. Indeed, the survey-based literature on attitudes towards migration consistently shows ‘skill hierarchies’, with a preference towards high-skilled over low-skilled migrants. But the public tend to be more positive when asked about particular occupations migrants have, for instance when expressing their views on fruit pickers, compared to when considering the same fruit pickers as part of a homogenous ‘low skilled’ category. There is more to ‘skills that matter’ than a low-high skilled migration binary. Regarding the ‘country they come from’, the literature on ‘ethnic hierarchies’ tends to agree on public preferences over ‘culturally close’ compared to ‘culturally distant’ countries of origin. Perhaps what is most interesting is how the ‘hierarchies’ people construct depend on their understanding of terms such as ‘immigration’ in the first place.

I did extensive fieldwork in two contrasting case studies – London Borough of Newham and Tendring. I interviewed local politicians and British, Romanian and Polish people living locally. I asked them to describe how they would design migration policies if they were in charge and what does ‘low skilled’ mean for them. No two answers were identical, but there were some common trends. ‘Control’ was mentioned in most participants’ narratives and related to how they understood ideas of contribution, certainty and community when it comes to the impact of migration.

Contribution: “As long as they pay their taxes…”

A level of control was seen as needed to ensure migrants ‘contribute’. But even for those most critical of immigration, contribution was seen through a ‘common sense fiscal lens’ and only one participant believed a strict income threshold should apply. Low skilled migrants were generally seen as needed in the UK, especially by those who had direct experience working in lower paid sectors or employing migrants in these jobs. There were concerns that shorter term low-skilled migration routes will not fill in skills shortages and not allow enough time for migrant ‘upskilling’.

Certainty: “As long as we know who is here…”

Higher control was perceived as offering more certainty over the number of migrants. Even for some of the more pro-immigration participants, a ‘registration system’ for EU migrants was a desirable policy idea, particularly in order to plan resource allocation. However, having more certainty in post-Brexit immigration policy comes with a price, the uncertainty experienced by EU friends, family and colleagues already in the UK, a price some participants were not willing to pay.

Community: “As long as they integrate…”

The relationship between control and community could go either way. Some were concerned that shorter-term routes for low skilled workers post-Brexit could lead to less integration, which was seen as an undesirable outcome. Others believed that more control would reduce the speed of migration and lead to improved long-term integration in local communities. The term ‘integration’ itself had a wealth of subjective definitions and interpretations.

“Anyway, something needs to change…”

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ definition of low skilled migration in policymaking. Amongst the public, there is a spectrum of attitudes towards low skilled migrants. The critical question to ask in the ongoing Brexit debates is, how can the new migration system be sustainable for British people and migrants alike? The first step is to listen to both British and migrant voices and recognise that, on the ground, public opinion is not as straightforward as ticking a low or high skilled migrant box – and nor are migrants’ life trajectories and transitions in the job market. In this NIER special issue, my paper explores in more detail British, Romanian and Polish attitudes towards low skilled migration in the Brexit context.


Alexandra Bulat is a PhD Candidate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London (UCL). Her doctoral research focuses on how attitudes towards EU migration are shaped in the UK, based on qualitative fieldwork with British, Romanian and Polish participants living in two local authority areas – Tendring (Essex) and Newham (London). Alexandra tweets about migration and citizens’ rights @alexandrabulat.


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