Trade unions and employer bodies have warned that introducing different immigration rules after Brexit for high and low-skilled workers could bring negative consequences for sectors heavily reliant on overseas labour – particularly if there is a greater emphasis on the earnings of future migrants than employers’ talent requirements.
In a range of responses to a House of Commons home affairs committee report on migration – which recommended that future immigration rules should allow UK businesses and organisations to attract top talent in internationally competitive fields, with restrictions and controls focused more on low-skilled migration – experts highlighted the dangers organisations faced if future visa requirements were too inflexible.
Sampson Low, head of policy at trade union Unison, warned that "different rules based on skill levels is not the solution – especially where wage levels are seen as the indicator.
"Without workers from Europe and beyond, the UK's health and social care services would have gone under long ago. It's important that any change in immigration rules is mindful of the areas and jobs struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of staff."
Ufi Ibrahim, CEO of the British Hospitality Association, also said cutting the numbers of unskilled workers was missing the point, as such individuals were badly needed in the sector. “If immigration from the EU is significantly reduced, hospitality will be heavily affected as up to 24 per cent of the sector’s workforce is from the EU," he said.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD – which has been asked to join the Home Office's employer forum feeding into its forthcoming post-Brexit immigration system white paper – said employers should start thinking seriously about strategic workforce planning. "It is a long-term issue; you can't just flick a switch," he said.
Willmott added that the CIPD believed post-Brexit policies for EU nationals should be aligned to the existing points-based system for non-EU nationals. Any new system should cater for sectors with systemic labour shortages, and the government should review and expand the labour shortage occupation list to include jobs at lower levels of skills and salary, he said.
The report highlighted this issue, stating that because the current rules for non-EEA migration are based on salary thresholds, some highly skilled roles, such as teaching, do not qualify for a high-skilled visa.
Reports this week suggested that “dozens” of overseas doctors had recently been blocked from working in the NHS because they had been unable to secure Tier 2 visas. Some did not have the right sort of specialisms or were earning below the Tier 2 salary thresholds, but critics said it was “beyond belief” that they were unable to enter the UK while the NHS was cancelling thousands of operations and was suffering severe recruitment issues.
The Home Office committee report recommended that for skilled jobs with shortages or high levels of recruitment from abroad, there should be a joint plan on skills and migration, with the government drawing up a three-year rolling plan with businesses, trade unions, training sectors, devolved governments and local councils to identify the level of immigration needed to fill skills gaps in the short term, alongside a commitment to upskill UK workers in sectors and regions where they are needed.
Nursing was one profession flagged to follow this plan, while the report said that in the cases of other occupations, such as IT and construction, work permits should be linked to sectoral agreements setting out commitments to training.
Willmott said any future system needed to be user-friendly so that employers could access the skills they needed without being tied up in too much red tape. He said the CIPD believed any new system should be a national one. "An array of schemes could lead to quite a lot of complexity and perceived unfairness in how those schemes operate," he warned.
The report also said that for low-skilled jobs where recruitment is heavily reliant on overseas labour, the Migration Advisory Committee should assess whether poor pay, terms and conditions, agency working or location were allowing undercutting and exploitation, and whether any new restrictions and controls were needed. It heard concerns from some respondents that certain employers were recruiting exclusively from eastern Europe for factory roles.