In recent years the government has been seen to take a hard-line stance on immigration policy. Yet it has launched numerous pro-immigration initiatives, with the primary aim of filling the labour deficit that exists in multiple sectors. Focus on these two conflicting approaches to immigration diverges hugely, with schemes that openly recognise the need for migration receiving little to no media attention. In this blog, Dr William Shankley explores this hypocrisy and how we may improve immigration policy, both for productivity and people.
- The establishment of the Seasonal Workers Pilot and Shortage Occupation List highlight dual and contradictory approaches taken by the government towards immigration.
- The lack of attention given to these labour recruitment schemes and policy highlights the politics of being seen to take a hard-line stance towards immigration after the EU Referendum.
- Immigration policy should reflect and openly embrace the importance of immigration on the solvency of our workforce in order to avoid a future labour deficit.
2016 Immigration Act: A compliant environment
Immigration has been found to be one of the core issues that underpinned the Referendum vote in 2016 and its outcome. Consequently, it was one of the key discussion points to emerge in the Tory leadership contest, which exposed the government’s continued pursuit of reducing net immigration rates – exemplified in its 2016 Immigration Act. This immigration policy provided the architecture to support the government’s compliant environment. It brought the borders further into the country’s institutions, with restrictions on immigrants’ access to housing and language required to continue employment in certain roles.
However, the government has also made steps towards devising and implementing an array of migrant recruitment programmes and policy to solve labour deficits. We hear little about these types of recruitment programmes and this seems strategic: to avoid scrutiny over seemingly taking a hard-line on immigration after the 2016 Referendum, while also pursuing parallel labour recruitment programmes from overseas. These divergent approaches expose current immigration hypocrisies and demonstrate the significance of the labour market in shaping immigration policy or adding caveats to the existing immigration system to remain solvent.
Policies specifically designed to encourage labour migrants
At this point, it is important to consider two specific examples that show how current immigration policy is being circumvented by specific programmes and policies. This is to ensure that Britain accepts enough labour migrants to keep specific sectors functioning. These policies and programmes are, firstly, the Seasonal Workers Pilot, and secondly, the Shortage Occupation List.
i) Seasonal Workers Pilot
Anxieties associated with retaining agricultural workers after Brexit has led to articles in the media, such as Brits don’t want to work on farms – so who will pick fruit after Brexit? To remedy these fears, the government designed the Seasonal Workers Pilot to channel approximately 2,500 seasonal agricultural workers from outside the EEA into Britain. This is aimed at reducing the sector’s labour deficit. The scheme permits migrants to enter Britain (2019-2020) on a Tier 5 visa, for a maximum period of 6 months with the intention of supplying the necessary labour during peak production periods. Nonetheless, this is controversial given the association between the immigration of low skilled migrants and the broader public concern over immigration.
This tentative balancing act of a need to recruit migrant labour versus the government’s aim of avoiding public scrutiny has a long history in Britain. For example, the European Volunteer Workers Scheme (1948-1951) that enlisted displaced people from camps across Europe to fill domestic and healthcare vacancies. More recently, the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which sought to limit the number of post 2007 EU accession migrants from entering Britain’s labour market and channelled them into the agricultural sector.
ii) Shortage Occupation List (SOL)
The need to retain and sustain labour in specific sectors of the labour market has also led to specific policies designed to attract people in sectors currently experiencing a shortage. The Shortage Occupational List charts the sectors that the Migration Advisory Committee has advised the government are in need of labour, for example, nursing, civil engineers, physical scientists and chefs. Migrants wanting to enter Britain and work in one of these sectors receive an advantage when applying for Tier 2 visa (general visa), for instance, applicants are not required to complete the resident labour market test, which requires an employer to advertise a vacancy locally before offering the role to an employee outside the EEA. While applying for a Tier 2 visa with the SOL provides a migrant with an advantage, they still have to meet other eligibility criteria such as the £30,000 per annum minimum salary threshold. Yet, the sectors benefit from this overriding of the visa eligibility criteria by receiving an increase in applications, and applications made directly to enter specific employment roles.
How can immigration policy be improved?
Little is known about the immigration policy the government will pursue after Brexit, with speculation that a points-based system will be introduced. One possible solution is an alternative policy to prioritise the significant role migrants play in all sectors and transform public discourse to paint a more positive understanding of the importance of immigration. This would make the country a more hospitable place to support migrants deciding to settle long term and thus avoid a future labour deficit.
Examples of more equal labour recruitment schemes that Britain could pursue exist in Spain (The Spanish Catalogue of Hard-to-Fill vacancies) and Sweden (The 2008 Swedish Immigration Law). In these employer-led schemes, the employer is allowed to recruit migrants from across the skills spectrum, which is flexible to recognise the changing need of the sector. Employers can recruit migrants for high through to low-skilled positions with accompanying social and family rights, as well as the option of a pathway to settlement for the migrant over time. In both countries, migrants are offered permits for an initial two years, which can later be extended for an additional two years. After this, applicants can apply for permanent residency and migrants’ access to welfare rights and family reunion are offered after the first year in both countries.
The social, family and settlement rights of migrants on these programmes overcome the perception that they are designed purely as a vehicle of the state to exploit migrant labour with little or no rights in return. They offer two fairer approaches that could be implemented into the Seasonal Workers Pilot or Tier 2 visas from the SOL in Britain.