Businesses in the UK have always prided themselves on attracting top international talent. But is the current crackdown on immigration now putting global recruitment at risk? Matt Chittock investigates
As the recession continues to bite and the general election gets ever closer, immigration is a subject that’s rarely out of the news headlines. Politicians know that for an electorate fighting to pay bills or hold onto their jobs, it’s an emotive, possibly vote-winning issue. And as times get tougher, the rhetoric emerging from the Home Office is getting more and more decisive.
Home Secretary Theresa May might have made a major speech in 2013 on developing “an immigration system that works in our national interest” – but the focus for the government has been on reducing immigration.
In fact, the coalition is currently committed to reducing migration into the UK by "tens of thousands each year, not hundreds of thousands" by the next election.
But what does the government’s increasingly hardline stance on immigration mean for UK managers trying to attract the right skilled employees for their business?
Rachel Harvey, a leading lawyer specialising in immigration for Cartwright King, says that the current climate is “horrendous” for companies trying to attract talent from outside the EU. “In the past it wasn’t easy to bring people from overseas over to work in UK companies,” she says. “But due to changes in the law, today it’s much, much harder – and for some businesses it’s nigh on impossible. It’s not the big corporations that are finding it difficult, it’s the small businesses that can’t pay huge wages which are really suffering.”
Harvey explains that migration into the UK is assessed on a ‘points-based system’. So, for instance, highly skilled doctors are more likely to be granted access than lowly factory workers.However, in 2011 the Home Office ruled that only graduate-level non-European Economic Area workers would be allowed to apply to work in the UK. They have also put a controversial immigration cap in place which severely restricts the number of immigrants allowed into the country every month. Harvey says that this environment has created an unfair advantage for big businesses trying to attract overseas talent at the expense of SMEs. “Jobs with salaries over £150,000 are exempt from the rules,” says Harvey. “So this is fine for the big companies who have graduate level jobs and can afford to pay top wages in industries like engineering.” “But there are areas such as catering or the care sector where employers are looking for specialist skills, rather than a degree.”
It’s not the big corporations that are finding it difficult, it’s the small businesses that can’t pay huge wages which are really suffering
As an example she cites the role of a specialist chef who might be highly skilled in cooking a regional style of dish, as well as other jobs which need a certain level of skill, but don’t necessarily command a big salary or require a technical qualification. It’s a situation that’s also true for the next generation of UK internet start-ups who say they need overseas talent to boost business, but are hampered by red tape.
Dan Crow, Chief Technical Officer of hotly-tipped internet start-up Songkick, has gone on the record to explain that while the company thrives on having skilled workers, “our ability to expand, grow and offer new jobs is affected by our ability to get those workers.”
“We’d love to have as many British people coming in as possible,” he told the BBC. “But if we really want to grow we need to bring in the best and the brightest from around the world.”
Harvey is just as frustrated as some of the companies she represents about this state of affairs. “We’re getting some horrendous decisions from the Home Office,” she says. “It’s because they’re just looking at the numbers, and the government needs to present a picture of immigration designed to win votes from ‘Joe Bloggs’ on the street.” Political adherents of the immigration cap have said that companies should be more prepared to train up British workers than take the easy way out and employ from an overseas talent pool.
But bodies like the business lobbying group the CBI counter that to stay competitive the government must work harder to declare the UK ‘open for business’. “The UK must focus on being – and being seen to be – a welcoming place for global business, visitors and students,” explains Rob Wall, head of employment policy at the CBI. “A managed migration policy with an effective visa system must support the UK as a place to do business. That means a positive message about the UK being open for business, and a firm focus from UK Immigration and Visas on improving operations and customer service.”
Harvey acknowledges that lobbying at the highest level is an important part of the immigration debate. But she adds that on the frontline companies are getting frustrated. “If they employ someone illegally then they risk a huge fine,” she says. “So they face the choice of employing someone from the existing labour pool, or just giving up.”