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Size of workforce

In the first quarter of 2017, there were 2.32 million nationals of EU27 countries (i.e. all EU countries excluding the UK) working in the UK, just over 7% of all people in employment. This compares to 0.4 million EU27 nationals working in the UK in 1997, when they comprised 2% of all people in employment.

This total includes around 1.00 million nationals of EU14 countries (members of the EU before 2004) and 1.32 million nationals of countries which have joined the EU since 2004.

Around a third of workers from EU27 countries lived in London in 2016 (34%), although this is down from 45% in 2003. Over this period, all regions (including London) saw large increases in the number of workers from EU27 countries.


Workers from EU27 countries are more likely to be employed in low-skilled elementary occupations than UK nationals: just under a quarter (23%) worked in elementary occupations in 2016 compared to 10% of UK nationals. EU nationals are also more likely to be employed in skilled trades occupations and as process, plant or machine operatives.

However, EU27 nationals are more likely to be ‘over-educated’ for the job they are doing than UK nationals: around 38% of workers from the EU27 held a higher qualification than was typical for people working in that occupation in 2013-15, compared to 15% of workers from the UK.

The occupational profile of EU nationals varies by country of nationality within the EU. Workers from EU14 countries were more likely to be employed in higher-skilled professional or managerial occupations than UK nationals in 2016, while workers from the rest of the EU (countries that joined after 2004) are more concentrated in lower-skilled occupations. The proportion of workers who are over-educated for their job was similar for both groups.


The proportion of the workforce who are EU nationals is much higher in some industries than in others. In 2016, 33% of people working in the manufacture of food products were EU27 nationals. Other industries with a high proportion of workers from EU27 countries included accommodation (19%) and warehousing and support for transport (18%).

Type of employment

The employment rate for EU27 nationals aged 16-64 is higher than for UK nationals. People from EU14 countries had a lower employment rate than those from the rest of the EU, but were still more likely to be in work than UK nationals.

EU27 nationals were also more likely to be in full-time work: 81% of workers from EU27 countries were employed full-time in 2016, compared to 74% of UK nationals. Full-time employment was more common among workers from countries joining the EU after 2004, while the proportion of workers employed full-time rose to 88% for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals.

Broadly similar proportions of workers from EU27 countries and from the UK were self-employed in 2016 (16% and 14% respectively). Self-employment was more common among workers from Romania and Bulgaria, around a quarter of whom were self-employed.


For employees, average pay for EU14 nationals was considerably higher than for workers from the rest of the EU in 2016. Median hourly pay for employees from EU14 countries was around 9% higher than for UK nationals, while median pay for those from the rest of the EU was around 28% lower than for UK nationals. These pay figures do need to be viewed with some caution, as they rely on survey respondents correctly reporting their earnings (and underestimate earnings compared to other sources).

Migration Advisory Committee report

On 27 July 2017 the Government announced it was commissioning the Migration Advisory Committee to report on the impact of Brexit on the UK labour market and how the UK immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy. The Migration Advisory Committee is to report back to the Government by September 2018, with the possibility of interim reports before that date.

Terminology, sources and limitations

Throughout this paper, “EU27 nationals” or “EU nationals” should be interpreted as people who are nationals of countries that are currently members of the European Union, excluding the UK. Similarly, “Workers from the EU” should be understood as workers who are nationals of EU countries not including the UK.

The data in this briefing paper are largely taken from the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly Labour Force Survey, accessed via the UK Data Service. The Labour Force Survey is the primary source for statistics on employment and unemployment in the UK. However, it is largely a survey of private households so generally does not cover people living in communal establishments (such as hostels or halls of residence) and is unlikely to pick up seasonal workers who come to the UK for very short periods of time. Therefore, statistics presented in this paper may miss out certain kinds of worker. For example, industry sources indicate the agriculture sector is much more reliant on labour from EU27 countries than is suggested by the Labour Force Survey.

Other relevant Library briefing papers

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