When there is uncertainty, these concerns are understandable, although they may be premature. Nevertheless, there are steps that businesses can take to ensure as smooth a position as possible in these uncertain times.
The prospect of the UK leaving the EU is likely to give rise to concerns for EU national employees on three fronts:
Given the importance of skilled and specialist employees to pharma businesses, many of whom look to foreign workers from the EU and beyond, businesses in the sector are advised to take steps to try to reassure their EU national employees. These employees may be looking for reassurance both that they are still welcome and valued, and that they and their families will be able to remain in the UK following Brexit. Of course, the government has been holding its cards very close to its chest, so little is known about its plans for Brexit, but nevertheless businesses should try to give employees access to as much information as possible.
There are three main questions which EU nationals, and the pharma businesses which rely on them, are likely to have at this stage:
Recent announcements by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, suggest that unfettered free movement for EU nationals will cease following Brexit, so it seems likely that some sort of work permission for EU nationals will be required, which inevitably will lead to a reduction in the number of EU nationals who are able to come to the UK. If that happens there may need to be changes to the Immigration Rules for non-EU nationals to accommodate demand from employers for workers whose skills are in short supply. Regular tinkering with the Immigration Rules is something we are used to, but perhaps changes will be even more frequent following Brexit in response to labour market demands.
Some businesses, including those in the pharma sector, are taking the proactive approach of applying for a Tier 2 sponsor licence if they do not already hold one. That licence is currently required to sponsor skilled workers from outside of the UK so can be used by employers wishing to fill vacancies for skilled roles which they are unable to fill with workers from the UK or EU labour markets. It is also possible that sponsorship will be a feature of the post-Brexit immigration system for EU nationals, so having a sponsor licence in place now could save time later. It could also be a selling point when businesses are looking to attract the best talent.
As for the situation for EU nationals already in the UK, nothing has yet changed for them as far as their rights to live and work in the UK are concerned. However, many will now be concerned about the future.
That said, it is hard to imagine in a post-Brexit UK - where the Government will be looking to boost British industry, particularly when the EU may play hard ball in trade negotiations - that the Government will get in the way of business being able to retain or even seek skilled workers. Whilst the current rhetoric is to be able to control immigration from Westminster, it seems very unlikely that workers who are already here - particularly skilled workers - are simply going to be expelled from the UK.
A key issue in the government's negotiations with the EU will be the positions of EU nationals already in the UK and UK nationals living in other parts of the EU. It is reasonable to assume that transitional arrangements will be put in place for EU nationals who are already here.
Nevertheless, EU nationals already in the UK may still wish to apply now for documentation to confirm their current status. Since the referendum, the volume of those applications has increased dramatically with huge backlogs building up, but EU employees might still want to make applications as having that documentation might help them assert their right to live in the UK post Brexit.
It looks unlikely that there will be any clarity on post-Brexit immigration for some months but some of the steps outlined above might provide employers and EU nationals with some reassurance in these uncertain times.