Scotland Will Struggle to Compete for Migrant Workers

Published: 21 June 2018

New research conducted by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow suggests that a post-Brexit Scotland is likely to find itself losing out on much-needed low-skilled migrant labour from the European Economic Area (EEA) to English-speaking countries.


New research conducted by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow suggests that a post-Brexit Scotland is likely to find itself losing out on much-needed low-skilled migrant labour from the European Economic Area (EEA) to English-speaking countries such as North America, Australia, and to countries within the EEA.

The study, Choices Ahead: Approaches to lower skilled labour migration after Brexit, investigated how migrants reach decisions about where to work, it found that key Scottish sectors such as agriculture, care, construction and hospitality are likely to lose out when the current arrangements end in 2019.

The relatively high level of flexibility and security offered by the current arrangements gives Scotland and other areas of the UK a competitive advantage over destinations such as the USA.

In addition to factors affecting migrant decisions, the report considered visa schemes available in other industrialised countries and assessed how these chimed with migrant motivations. The authors contrasted these options with current proposals for regulating migration to lower-skilled jobs once free movement ends.

They identified a lack of joined-up thinking, meaning that the current proposals failed to balance the skills needs of key sectors with, for example, the demographic needs of Scotland, and Scotland’s rural areas in particular.

Professor Rebecca Kay, Co-author,  from the University of Glasgow's School of Social & Political Sciences, said: "Each year thousands of European nationals fill lower-skilled job vacancies in many UK industries like agriculture and care work. Many have stayed longer-term, raising families and contributing to their local communities.

"Policy makers designing new immigration policy must consider the varied needs of these workers and the attractiveness of the UK as a destination. Policy design will impact both on our ability to attract migrant workers at all, and on the types of migrants who are willing to come to, or settle in our country."

Her co-author Dr Sarah Kyambi of the University of Edinburgh, added: "The UK is ill-served by immigration policymakers not considering the full range of goals to be pursued from immigration and not exploring the potential of the full range of programmes to meet them.

"These case studies from other industrialised countries show that the range of programmes for migration into lower skilled work is wider than temporary, restrictive schemes. Where labour needs are longer term, or immigration plays a role in meeting demographic challenges, more flexible and generous regimes are more appropriate. As well as competing to attract ‘the brightest and the best’, it is time to recognise the value of immigration into lower skilled work."

Another co-author, Professor Christina Boswell of the University of Edinburgh, commented: "Most of the discussion about immigration needs after Brexit has focused on higher skilled occupations – with the assumption being that we can regulate lower-skilled immigration through temporary and seasonal schemes.

"But experience from other countries suggests that such temporary schemes can have serious drawbacks, leading to vulnerability, a high level of churn, and challenges with enforcement. And such restricted rights programmes are likely to be far less appealing to EEA nationals."

The report’s policy recommendations include:

  • Policy makers need to balance a range of labour market, demographic and social goals in developing policies to regulate low-skilled migration. But crucially, they also need to consider how different programmes are likely to affect decisions on mobility and settlement. A shift to a more restrictive system is likely to have substantial effects on the supply of EEA nationals into lower-skilled jobs.
  • Whatever programme is adopted, the UK and Scotland will have to compete with other countries as potential migrant destinations. For EEA nationals, other countries within the EEA will become attractive alternatives. Other English-speaking countries (USA, Canada or Australia) with more complex entry requirements may also begin to emerge as more attractive destinations, especially for younger migrants with good English-language skills.’

The full report, Lower Skilled Migration After Brexit, is available here

The authors of the report are:

  • Dr Sarah Kyambi, University of Edinburgh 
  • Professor Rebecca Kay, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Christina Boswell, University of Edinburgh
  • Mr  University of Glasgow
  • Dr Holly Porteous, University of Glasgow

The research was principally funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with a small contribution from the Scottish Government.

For further information contact Nick Bibby, Press Officer, Edinburgh University School of Social and Political Science, on 0131 651 4735 or  or Áine Allardyce, Communications Officer, University of Glasgow Communications and Public Affairs Office on 0141 330 7126 or

First published: 21 June 2018

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