Many European countries rely on immigrants to fill job vacancies and compete for skilled workers in particular. In EU countries, working residents (i.e., citizens and citizens of other countries who are permanent residents) and workers from other member states have long enjoyed equal rights, including rights to social security. The rights of third-country immigrant workers have been weaker, but the Union is moving towards greater equality: for example, Directive 2011/98/EU grants third-country workers the same social security benefits as residents in principle, but they allow for important restrictions (Beduschi 2015; Verschueren 2018). A revision of this Directive is underway in 2022, which will further extend the rights of third-country workers and their dependants (COM(2022) 655 final). While initiatives like these move toward equality, the UK, in contrast, has become more unequal for working immigrants compared to UK residents due to the removal of the distinction between workers from EU member states and third-country workers (Meyer & Bridgen 2022).
Before the UK left the European Union in 2021, EU citizens could work in the UK without restrictions, and they had the same social rights as UK citizens, while third-country immigrant workers only received UK working visas if their earnings were above a fixed threshold. In addition, during their first five years in the UK, they were excluded from child- and income-related benefits and had to pay a visa fee and healthcare surcharges. After Brexit, under the points-based immigration system, the UK has extended this much more restrictive visa system to all immigrant workers, including those from EU member states.
Exclusion from certain benefits and obligation to pay charges mean that UK immigrant workers who qualify for visas and who earn the same gross wages as resident workers will nevertheless have lower net incomes. The earnings gap between immigrants and residents is particularly large for working migrants who come to the UK with children and a partner or who have children soon after arriving because contrary to residents, they do not qualify for child-related benefits during their first five years in the country.
For example, in 2021 a breadwinner family aged 25+ with one full-time wage earner and one full-time home-maker on a gross annual income of £28,080 would have received £180 less per week in social benefits as migrants than as non-migrants. A one-and-a-half breadwinner family aged 25+ with one full-time and one part-time wage earner and joint gross earnings worth £40,319 would have received £207 less per week in social benefits as migrants than as non-migrants (Meyer & Bridgen 2022).
This immigration system creates social inequalities between immigrants and residents receiving the same wages, and the most affected are working immigrants with economically inactive partners with children. Data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study shows that women from South Asia are a lot more likely to be economically inactive and to have children during their first five years in the UK than female European migrants (Mikolai & Kulu 2022). Their disadvantages are therefore greatest. Nevertheless, European migrants of childbearing age who qualify for a UK visa would also receive less support for potential children than UK residents. Such inequalities would not exist if they were to move to an EU member state.
Thus, from the perspective of EU migrants with children who have sufficient earnings to qualify for a British visa, the UK is already less attractive than EU countries, where they are entitled to family-related support. From the perspective of third-country immigrant workers and their dependents, this is true in some EU countries already, and it is likely to be true in all member states in the near future.
Mikolai and Kulu’s work has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 834103). Meyer and Bridgen’s work was funded by the ESRC Centre for Population Change (grant agreement ES/R009139/1).
Beduschi, A. (2015). "An Empty Shell? The Protection of Social Rights of Third-Country Workers in the EU after the Single Permit Directive." European Journal of Migration and Law 17(2-3): 210-238.
COM (2022) 655: Proposal for a DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in the territory of a Member State and on a common set of rights for third-country workers legally residing in a Member State (recast). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/procedure/EN/2022_131?qid=1662048101609&rid=2
Meyer, T., & Bridgen, P. (2022). "Open for the childless skilled only: the poverty risks of migrant workers with children under the UK points-based immigration system." Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 30(1): 9-36. https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/jpsj/30/1/article-p9.xml
Mikolai, J. & Kulu, H. (2022). "Partnership, fertility, and employment trajectories of immigrants in the UK: A three-channel sequence analysis." MigrantLife Working Paper 6. http://migrantlife.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/files/2022/01/Partnership-fertil…
Verschueren, H. (2018). "Employment and social security rights of third-country nationals under the EU labour migration directives." European Journal of Social Security 20(2): 100-115.