2021: A Year of Milestone Moments and Challenging Cases

By Emma McClelland - 18 December 2021

It's been a packed year for charities supporting EEA nationals and their families, especially those in precarious work. In this post, the Work Rights Centre team reflect on their most important moments and cases during the past 12 months.

We supported EUSS applicants

For EEA nationals and their families, one date in particular loomed: 30th June 2021. By this date, all EU citizens who came to the UK before 2021 had to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) in order to continue living and working here. The scheme granted one of two types of status: 'settled' if you had been resident for five years or more, or 'pre-settled' if you hadn't. 

However, many EEA nationals struggled to apply or, in the case of long-term residents, didn't even know they had to. At the Work Rights Centre, between March 2020-March 2021, we received 200 queries about the EUSS and its impact on people's employment prospects, amounting to one in every five beneficiaries.

The process presented stumbling blocks for many people, as service provision assistant Bethany Birdsall recalls: "The digital and English language barriers were extremely prevalent - and the entire system for applying to remain in the UK after Brexit became insurmountable for so many people."

We were inundated with requests for support from people who had applied by the deadline but hadn't received confirmation of their status. When applicants were asked by an employer to prove their right to work, they had to issue a virtual 'share code' with a limited 30-day validity. But this option wasn't available until their status had been decided. 

Although all applicants should have received a Certificate of Application (COA), which could be used to prove their application was pending, people who submitted their EUSS applications on paper ended up waiting months for one (with some still waiting). Employers and landlords often didn't know how to use the relevant service to check a COA, or simply didn't have the patience.

We helped to secure people's status

Despite the challenges, the team was able to help many EUSS applicants. For service provider Andrei Savitski, his most memorable case involved a Russian-born Estonian national who was trafficked into the UK to perform domestic work for wealthy households. 

"After four years of being in several modern-day slavery situations, she escaped, and we helped her start getting back on her feet. This included applying for the EUSS right before the deadline with no solid evidence of her residence in the UK, opening a bank account and teaching her how to use it on her phone, applying for a NINo, and providing mental health support via our partners at the EERC. One of the most fulfilling moments was when she got her pre-settled status after a five-minute telephone conversation with a senior Home Office caseworker."

We recovered unpaid wages and holiday pay

During 2021, we recovered thousands of pounds in unpaid wages and holiday pay on behalf of our beneficiaries. For service provider Maria Sofronov, these moments were the most fulfilling. "A couple of weeks after I first started working here, I was dealing with a case where a man hadn't been paid for a month's work because of his pending EUSS status. We were able to help him recover nearly £6,000. As you can imagine, he was very happy."

Bethany recalls similar situations: "I worked on a few cases where employees weren't paid their wages or were let go without redundancy/notice pay. For many of them, we were able to claim the money back, just by assisting the beneficiary in sending their employer an email - or taking it to ACAS early concilliation. These cases were fulfilling because it's a reminder that you don't have to go to Employment Tribunal or even small claims court in order to enforce your rights. You just need the tools and the information to do it."

We had some challenging cases

It's been an incredibly difficult year for so many people and our advisers heard about their struggles first-hand. As Maria recalls: "We were helping a man find work and he asked us to help him get his National Insurance Number, but he was homeless and didn't say anything about it at first because he was ashamed. It was a struggle trying to find accommodation, going from one agency to another, and having to deal with a system that couldn't really help him for two months because of his status. He has now found somewhere to stay and we're helping him to find work, but it was a very difficult situation."

Sadly, homelessness was a recurring issue. Reflecting on one of her own cases, service provider Magda Saniuk explains: "I was helping a homeless client with pre-settled status who was unemployed therefore not eligible for help from homelessness charities for temporary accommodation. Seeing the impact Brexit has on the most vulnerable people living in this country and the limitation of help available to them depending on their status was very distressing. Thankfully the client now has a job and can afford to rent a room, but the journey getting there was long and difficult."

We had the authority!

2021 was the year public figures stepped up to help us to raise awareness of precarious work. "One of the most memorable moments for me was when Jackie Weaver joined our Christmas campaign, the Naughty List," recalls Senior Communications Officer Emma McClelland. 

"Every day, the team hears about flagrant violations of people's employment rights and it's so important for workers to know who they can turn to if this happens to them. Having Jackie on board was definitely beneficial to raising that awareness and she was brilliant to work with - proof that 'never meet your heroes' isn't always applicable!"

We learned a lot

There is never a year that goes by without us learning something about ourselves, others, and the society in which we live. For our service provision team, there were plenty of lessons. 

"One thing I've learned is that the more vulnerable a service user is, the more personalised the support must be," Andrei comments. "Blanket solutions or standardised approaches unfortunately may not work for the most vulnerable - you have to respond on the spot using all of your knowledge and experience."

For Magda, who joined the team this year, fulfilling her ambition to work for a charity, Brexit presented the biggest learning curve. "I didn’t realise how many people are affected by precarious, unfair, and illegal work practices and the long-term impact of Brexit, which has already caused so many work problems for our clients and will only increase in time," she explains. "This made me understand the importance of having free, multilingual access to services and I'm very grateful that I can be a part of it."

We have high hopes for next year

After a tough year, the Work Rights Centre team have a few Christmas wishes of their own. For Maria, it is to have fewer people on Universal Credit "because of the uncertainty with everything that's going on and so many people with pre-settled status who are unable to claim. Getting them into work is going to be more stable for them". 

For Andrei, it is to increase our reach and help more people in very difficult financial and workplace situations. "We do our best in service provision but are also well aware that we're only scratching the tip of the iceberg. There are still many more people who have to deal with these complex issues on their own."

2021 in one word:

Andrei: Intense.

Emma: Surprising.

Maria: Eventful. 

Magda: EUSS! (Does this count as one word?)

Bethany: Enlightening.

Your support powers our multilingual team, allowing us to recover unpaid wages and holiday pay, and challenge discrimination. If you can, please make a donation to the Work Rights Centre today. 

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