The gendered impacts of Brexit: what will Brexit mean for immigrant women in the UK?

Lubnaa Joomun is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – the UK’s leading organisation of immigration lawyers.

While the Government is currently in talks with Labour in an attempt to reach a compromise deal on Brexit, sparking fresh reports of both a compromise being close and a revolt under way, there is still concern within many of the UK’s communities about how Brexit will impact their daily lives, with no-deal and a ‘Hard Brexit’ still on the table. 



At the root of Brexit is immigration, one of the most contentious issues behind it. The tendency is to generalise migrants as one group – who are usually portrayed as genderless – ignoring their different needs and contributions as individuals. Brexit, however, whatever shape it takes, will have different impacts on different industries, services and groups. Which puts in question the Government’s one-size-fits-all skills-based immigration system. A system that ignores the value of people and the varied skills they bring and that industries rely on, focussing on capital gain in a way that can only help to propagate existing inequalities in society and across the UK labour market.

Take retail, wholesale and hospitality, the largest group of industries employing EU workers (employing one in every four EU migrants in 2017, according to the Migration Observatory) – and are heavily dominated by women. The Confederation of British Industry predict as high as 96% of its current workforce would not qualify under the proposed post-Brexit immigration system, posing instability and a multitude of problems for women who are disproportionately represented in lower-skilled positions. This is because many in these industries simply do not earn £30,000 a year – the prerequisite to gain a Tier 2 Work Visa – which is doubly difficult for women to achieve while operating under the gender pay gap. 

The Government’s intended immigration plan is simply too high for most sectors and fails to acknowledge the disproportionate impacts such a restrictive system will have on women. Those with temporary or casual employment status (who are also predominantly women) are most at risk of “gradually eroding” post-Brexit employment standards, according to analysis by The Work Foundation.

For EU nationals, the option to apply for ‘settled status’ under the new system will only be available subject to five years’ continuous residence in the UK and subject to having comprehensive sickness insurance cover, which the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has warned is particularly likely to impact women due to their disproportionate responsibility for unpaid caring and other reproductive labour. Additionally, EU citizens have different conditions attached to their rights to reside and claim permanent residency depending on their status, with gendered consequences to their social rights. Unpaid care is not recognised as ‘genuine and effective work’, for example, making residence contingent on work, self-sufficiency or family status, which will make legal residence in the UK post-Brexit subject to gender and income-based inequalities.


Human rights legislation is another area of concern, as highlighted by women’s rights groups such as WBG, including those that prohibit sex discrimination, pregnancy discrimination and unequal pay – currently enforced in the UK by the EU. While the Government has repeatedly stated that leaving the EU does not mean a diminution in rights and equality, the Withdrawal Bill yet to be passed by parliament is vulnerable to change (the legislation as it stands grants Ministers powers to amend domestic and retained EU laws) and may not safeguard these rights, including the laws protecting women in both their professional and personal lives. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have already highlighted immigrant women as especially vulnerable to changes to women’s employment rights post-Brexit. Campaign groups such as Amnesty International UK and Liberty have also criticised the government’s decision to exclude the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from the Withdrawal Bill, leaving people poorer in terms of protections post-Brexit. 

On the topic of leaving people poorer, austerity has hit the most vulnerable groups the hardest, unduly impacting women. An aggravation of gender inequalities has placed women at an economic disadvantage compared to men, as highlighted by groups such as WBG and UNISON in which hard-hitting polices are impacting single mothers, women on lower incomes and the most vulnerable in our society such as domestic abuse survivors. Women rely on public services, which are also in the firing line of austerity. To add to this, Brexit has absorbed media and political attention away from other important issues and legislation, putting the resultant inequalities of austerity on hold. With the deadline extended now to the 31st October, negotiations will continue to divert attention and resources away from much-needed services, like refuges and social housing. 

Between the Windrush scandal and the more recent immigration scandal over test cheating accusations, hostile immigration policies and an obsession with targets which have damaged lives, the Government continues to dehumanise and treat migrants as a net of figures to tackle. The latest Domestic Abuse Bill that was drafted this year failed to protect migrant women on a Spouse Visa and their specific needs that prevent them from speaking out: many migrant victims of abuse fear deportation which has only resulted in vulnerable women seeking a Spouse Visa extension instead – and dealing with the abuse for five years – just to remain in the UK.  The Government continually fails to protect migrant women. 

The most vulnerable have borne the brunt of austerity. The financial crisis of 2008 led to those measures, and with Brexit, the overall impact on the economy looks negative. A ‘hard Brexit’ can only lead to more cuts, perpetuating a vicious cycle that impact those at the bottom of the ladder.

With renewed investigations into the Home Office and its decisions, the hope is that the Government will learn from past failures, if only it can look past Parliamentary squabbles and towards the future of the lives that they are supposed to protect. The growing concerns of women’s rights campaigners and groups must be addressed, alongside the Government’s historic and current gender-blindness in approaches to the economy.

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