New UK work-visa curbs spark concern

Restrictions on foreign workers will hit key sectors of British economy, companies say

Home Secretary Theresa May (right) is drawing protests over tighter immigration rules which came into effect on Wednesday. And she intends to tighten the rules even more.
Home Secretary Theresa May (right) is drawing protests over tighter immigration rules which came into effect on Wednesday. And she intends to tighten the rules even more.PHOTO: REUTERS

British activists have burned fake banknotes bearing the face of the country's Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa May, in a symbolic protest in central London against tighter immigration rules which came into effect on Wednesday.

Their publicity stunt attracted plenty of attention and more sombre complaints from experts and business organisations which warned that the new immigration rules will hit critical sectors of the British economy.

But Mrs May intends to restrict even further the ability of non-Europeans to work in Britain.

The most important change introduced by the British government this week tightens the rules on skilled foreigners who wish to work in the country. Until now, university postgraduates or professionals with a long track record in key professions could apply for a work visa provided their British employer could not get a citizen to do the job, and provided the post offered at least a £20,000 (S$38,000) yearly salary.

From now on, foreign workers in this category would need to show that they would be paid at least £25,000 per year and, from April next year, they will have to earn at least £30,000 in order to get the visa.

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire - who reports to Mrs May and is responsible for the daily operations of Britain's border controls - justifies the measures as "designed to work in Britain's national interest, ensuring that employers look first to the UK resident labour market before recruiting overseas".

Mr Brokenshire also says the rise in the required salary "will prevent companies using foreign workers to undercut wages".

But employers see things differently. They point out that the rise in the minimum salary amounts to a massive 33 per cent hike in one year, and fear that this would squeeze out promising foreign citizens who graduate from British universities and who may be persuaded to stay in the country, but have no chance of attracting high salaries on their first employment opportunity. For the moment, these graduates are exempt from the new pay requirements, but everyone expects them to be included soon.

Employers are reeling from another government decision which also came into effect this week, increasing the minimum wage of unskilled workers from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour. The result is that those who rely on foreign workers are squeezed from both sides: Hiring both skilled and unskilled employees will cost them more.

But the biggest dispute is over the impact of the new moves on Britain's healthcare sector, where annual salaries rarely exceed £30,000. Hospitals in England alone are currently short of 15,000 nurses, with particularly severe shortages in the elderly acute patients sector, which relies heavily on foreign labour. Employers have failed to persuade the British government to exempt skilled healthcare workers from the new regulations; all that Mrs May offered is a temporary exemption for nurses until 2019.

Still, her uncompromising stance won support from the Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body established by the British Parliament to provide impartial advice to the government on such matters.

Professor Sir David Metcalf, who chairs the body, believes that the current immigration system allows Britain's healthcare providers to neglect the training of local staff and to depress wages by recruiting foreign nurses.

Studies done by the Migration Advisory Committee also point out that British hospitals find it easier to hire foreign labour than to introduce labour-saving procedures and devices. As a result, Prof Metcalf supports the government measures and their extension to the healthcare sector: "There is no good reason," he says, "why nurses could not be found in the UK", especially if employers devoted some of their resources to training.

Either way, Britain's Home Secretary intends to tighten access to foreign labour even further from next year, by introducing a one-off £1,000 levy which employers will have to pay for any foreign worker's visa application they sponsor. That, too, is intended to force businesses to tap the local labour market.

There is no doubt that, regardless of their economic logic, Mrs May's measures enjoy broad public support. However, they also do entail some political risks. The new immigration restrictions apply only to non-Europeans; European Union citizens are still free to come and work as they wish.

And, with a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU now scheduled for June 23, anti-Europeans have seized on Mrs May's moves by arguing that only after Britain leaves the EU would the country regain complete control over its borders.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'New UK work-visa curbs spark concern'. Print Edition | Subscribe