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Brexit British employers worry about uncertain fate of EU staff

Businesses that rely on EU workers say the uncertainty has already created hardship for their staff and hurt their recruitment plans.

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British employers are hiring immigration lawyers to advise staff from European Union countries, and some are urging those eligible to apply for UK residency, in the face of uncertainty over their future once Britain leaves the bloc.

Britain is home to more than 3 million citizens of other EU countries - 5 percent of the population - who are allowed to live and work in the country under single market rules which mandate freedom of movement.

Since it voted to leave the EU on June 23, Britain has not yet made clear whether it intends to leave the single market. Prime Minister David Cameron has quit, leaving the task of negotiating Britain's exit, including its future position on free movement of EU workers, to his successor.

Many British politicians have called for a guarantee of the rights of all those already in Britain legally. But some, including Home Secretary Theresa May, favourite to succeed Cameron as ruling Conservative Party leader, say this is a matter for future negotiations, due to last two years from when Britain formally notifies the EU of its intention to leave.

Businesses that rely on EU workers say the uncertainty has already created hardship for their staff and hurt their recruitment plans.

"They are here because they need jobs, and we need a workforce," said Stuart Fell, chairman of Metal Assemblies on the outskirts of Birmingham, which employs 120 staff of which a third are non-British EU workers, mainly from Poland. The company makes car parts for customers from Maserati to Nissan.

"The biggest concern is that they don't feel welcome here anymore," he said. "The government said nothing will change in the next two years, but people here are making decisions on starting a family or buying a house - they can't put their life on hold."

Those holding non-British EU passports do not now need any other documents to live and work in Britain, so few bother to register for a document proving their right to be in the country legally, which the government offers but says is optional.

READ: Brexit - Oil prices edge up amid concerns, supply risks

Those in Britain for at least five years can also qualify for a certificate of permanent residency - a necessary step for those seeking British citizenship but otherwise usually redundant as long as Britain was in the EU.

Charlotte Wills, a lawyer and manager from immigration firm Fragomen Worldwide, said there had been a surge in inquiries from corporate clients - ranging from start-ups to blue chips and universities - trying to find out about more about the rules and options for their staff.

The firm was also fielding calls from private citizens wanting to "cement their status" in the UK.

"The big question for everyone is: what is going to happen? And right now, we just don't know," she said.

Fell, the chairman of Metal Assemblies, said he had read up on how to register in the UK and was passing the information on to individual employees. He said he would consider hiring immigration specialists if he felt that was needed.

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