Greening: Unlimited Global Work Permit Scheme Would Hurt UK Workers When They Need Protecting Most

Immigration is rightly in the headlines again, with records being broken over and over.

From record numbers found illegally crossing the Channel to legal arrivals from outside the European Union hitting the highest level ever in 2019.

However, Covid-19 has shut down much ordinary travel, and legal immigration is likely to fall for a time until lockdowns are lifted. Levels may also be impacted by the economic aftermath.

But the pandemic hasn’t stopped work in Parliament. MPs are considering the government’s post-Brexit border shake-up, and the government’s Immigration Bill was approved by a big House of Commons majority earlier this week.

Many fine words were heard during the debate. Politicians preened themselves for ‘delivering on promises’ and ‘restoring control’, but the new system is unlikely to follow through to such fine sentiments.

True, it will end the legal right of any of hundreds of millions of people in EU countries to come to the UK as they please, whether to take up a job or just to look for work. This should curtail the untrammelled flow of recruits from Europe into low-paid jobs.

But what use is sovereign power over immigration when ministers seem intent on keeping immigration high? Even as it narrows the EU door, the government wants to widen the ‘global’ gateway. Crucial to their plan is a loosened work permit scheme with key safeguards removed.

Unlike now, it would be uncapped with no limit of any kind on the number of foreign workers that employers can import from anywhere in the world. Unlike now, it would be open to those going into jobs needing only A-Level qualifications rather than university graduate-level jobs. Unlike now, a general salary threshold of £30,000 will be replaced with a significantly lower £25,600, with exceptions taking the floor, in practice, down below £20,000.

These changes would open millions more UK jobs to unlimited global competition. The government said these changes would lead to a higher wage, higher productivity economy — yet they show a green-light to employers looking to continue exploiting the availability of cheap labour from outside the UK.

This time, the pool to exploit will be more extensive than the EU. It will include the substantially larger — and much poorer — developing world, so business will be able to double down on its ‘get out of jail free’ card of easy immigration for the cheapest staff possible.

And they will go on deferring investment in the UK workforce, whether in higher wages, better conditions, or more training. This will come while the Covid-19 crisis sees the level of UK job vacancies plunge.

Remember: following the 2008 financial crisis, it took six years for the number of UK-born workers to regain its pre-crash level. During that time, the number of workers born abroad increased by more than a million.

Instead of building up British talent, employers sought out cheaper labour elsewhere, in some cases literally flying workers in from abroad.

Ministers should have learned the lesson; instead, they are scrapping vital protections for British workers.

One such rule — known by the dry title ‘Resident Labour Market Test’ — has been in place for decades. The aim of it is to ensure that employers have checked that no suitably qualified worker exists within the UK labour market that could fill a vacancy. Even New Labour retained it; the Conservative government plans its demise.

Scrapping it — especially at such a time of rising unemployment — is immoral.

The government insists its plan will bring overall immigration down, but the claim was called into doubt by a recently-published Home Office document. The reforms, it said, may “offer greater opportunities to employers looking to source skilled labour from outside the UK and EEA”.

But non-EU net immigration has already jumped by more than 170,000 since 2013, and the Home Office document said such numbers could reach new heights.

Some might claim these will just be offset by a fall in the number of new EU workers, but such claims will not be helped by suggestions that Boris Johnson may put in place another EU route to fill low-paid jobs.

Mass immigration is no solution to filling vacancies.

Companies can attract more UK talent by paying decent wages — the official expert committee on immigration said as much in 2018.

The government must urgently amend their plan. Time is running short. They should:

  • Retain the cap on work permits
  • Oblige employers to show they have made serious efforts to recruit in the UK first
  • Keep work permit salary and qualification thresholds just as they are

Brexit could have been the chance to restore sense to immigration policy.

It’s not too late.

Dr Ben Greening is the Executive Director of Migration Watch UK