Female EU citizens face disadvantage in claiming permanent residency in the UK

It is critical that the gender implications of the conditions for securing people’s rights are addressed
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Female EU nationals who are engaged in insecure types of work and who have young children face disadvantage in claiming permanent UK residency.

The finding was made as part of an LSE research project examining female EU citizens' experiences of trying to claim access to residence rights and social benefits.

EU nationals have residence rights in the UK if they are workers, the family members of EU nationals, or self-sufficient persons. After five years of residing in the UK on this basis, they can claim permanent residence.

The LSE research paper, Gender and free movement: EU migrant women’s access to residence and social rights in the UK, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, included interviews with providers of advice services to EU migrant women in the UK. The researchers also interviewed EU migrant women who had been living and working in the UK.

The research found that female EU nationals are at risk of exclusion from residence and social rights because their work is not recognised as 'genuine and effective work' or because having children negatively impacts on their employment. Women who are not married to an EU national in the UK are unable to rely on rights as family members, and so are dependent on being continuously employed to claim rights as a worker. But, as the research notes, gender inequalities in work and caring for children impact on women's access to rights on this basis.

Women working on zero-hours contracts faced difficulties in being recognised as workers.  One provider is quoted in the paper as saying: “I had notice from the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] last week [regarding a client’s benefits claim] that just said ‘zero-hours contract is not genuine and effective work’. There was no consideration of how many hours [of work] she was doing – it was a blanket assertion that zero hours is not ‘genuine and effective work’. Typically I see people in a situation where they are earning under the minimum earnings threshold, and there doesn’t tend to be, you can’t really see a decision-maker looking at personal circumstances to see if they might be ‘genuine and effective workers’.”

Researchers interviewed 12 members of staff from organisations whose services included advice and assistance with social benefits claims. Their services were either targeted at migrants more generally, EU migrants specifically, or particular user groups that included EU migrants (parents of pre-school children, homeless people). Interviews with staff examined their experiences of EU migrants’ access to rights to residence and to social benefits in the UK. 

Fifteen EU migrant women, who had been living and working in the UK, were also interviewed about their experiences.

Another provider is quoted: “What you often find is that somebody is told that the work you do is ‘marginal and ancillary’, based around the fact that, for instance, somebody is either in part-time work or is not doing sufficient hours or is not earning sufficient income.”

Women working in informal types of work, including cleaning/domestic work, where they did not have a written contract and were paid ‘cash-in-hand’, were also less able to provide evidence of being engaged in ‘genuine and effective work’. For example, they did not have a contract, pay slips or a bank account to be able to prove their work or earnings over a three-month period, thus excluding them from the status of worker.

The difficulties of providing evidence of ‘genuine and effective work’ were compounded where this evidence was required over a five-year period in order to claim the status of permanent resident.

While these conditions had implications for both women and men in insecure types of work, those types of work, and experiences of low-paid work, such as paid care work, affect women more acutely.

Women were also at a disadvantage where they had gaps in their employment history due to having children. This was particularly the case for lone parent women, who could not rely on access to rights as the family member of an EU national.

"Their previous work history counts for nothing unless they have got five years of work history, so essentially the clock is reset in terms of their ability to claim permanent residence."

One provider noted the absence of recognition of the impact of care on the lives of women: "There are five categories [of EU citizens with a right to reside] but being a mum of small children is not an exercising of EU Treaty rights so you need to get into a category."

The researchers, Dr Isabel Shutes of LSE’s Social Policy Department, and Sarah Walker of the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, call on the government to address the gender implications of the conditions for acquiring legal residence and social rights. Their findings indicate the difficulties that the approach taken in the UK already poses in terms of the requirements for demonstrating the status of worker, family member of an EU citizen-worker or, in the absence of work or marriage to an EU citizen, self-sufficiency.

The paper concludes: “Women out of work with pre-school children, who are not in a relationship with an EU citizen-worker, face the double burden of proving ‘self-sufficiency’ through no access to social benefits and through comprehensive sickness insurance…Making rights to residence and to social benefits contingent on work or family dependency is likely to contribute to gender and income-based inequalities in access to residence and social rights – placing low-income migrant women with young children at particular risk of exclusion from those rights, while placing all EU citizens in precarious work in insecurity.”

Dr Shutes commented: “The free movement of EU citizens is central to ongoing Brexit negotiations. But it is, already, much less free for some than for others.

“As an EU citizen, your right to reside in the UK (or another EU country) depends on whether you are in work, the spouse/partner of an EU citizen in work, or self-sufficient. To be eligible for means-tested benefits, you must be able to provide evidence that you have a right to reside in the UK. And you need to provide evidence over a five-year period when applying for permanent residence in the UK.

“Both EU citizen women and men may, in principle, have a right to free movement in Europe, and a right to reside in the UK on that basis. However, rights that depend on work, marriage/partnership or self-sufficiency are gendered, and have gendered effects.

“The research findings indicate how gendered experiences of work, care and family affect access to rights for EU migrant women in the UK. Women may face difficulties in claiming the status of ‘worker’ with a right to reside in the UK, particularly if they have periods of time out of work due to caring for children. In those cases, women are largely dependent on being the spouse/partner of an EU citizen in work to access residence rights. But their partner may not be an EU citizen who has moved to the UK – they may be in a relationship with a British or non-EU citizen – or they may be a lone parent who is unable to access rights and other resources via a spouse/partner whatever their citizenship.

“In the context of Brexit, it is critical that the gender implications of the conditions for securing people’s rights are addressed. Women out of work with pre-school children, who are not in a relationship with an EU citizen, are at risk of exclusion from rights and entitlements to residence and social security in the UK – now and beyond Brexit.”

The report is available here: