It is time to open a new immigration route for our essential workers

13 May 2020

In December 2018 the government published its immigration white paper. It proposed the introduction of a low-skilled temporary worker route from 1st January 2021 which would allow workers from “low-risk” countries to come to the UK and undertake employment in low-skilled roles for a maximum of twelve months.


However, the Government changed tack in February 2020, there will no longer be a low-skilled worker route when the new immigration system is launched and the “employers will need to adjust.” But it’s the government that needs to adjust.

The reason given  for this move was that they want to shift the focus of the UK economy away from reliance on cheap labour from Europe. However, the COVID-19 crisis has taught us that if it wasn’t for these low-skilled workers – who have been morphed into  “essential” workers – the UK would not have been able to cope.

According to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) there are currently 170,000 non-EEA workers employed in low-skilled occupations such as tourism, construction, farming and nursing. While the government has planned to quadruple the number of seasonal farm workers to 10,000 workers in 2020, up from the previous 2,500 workers, the UK still falls short as approximately 80,000 seasonal agricultural workers are required every year and as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed,  99% of these workers come from countries within the EU. 

For fields outside of agriculture, the Government has suggested that employers would be able to able to employ lower skilled workers coming under temporary work routes such as the Tier 5 Government Authorised Exchange (GAE) route or the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS), dependants of UK or other migrants with valid leave to remain in the UK or students working part time. 

Bodies representing sectors such as farming, catering and nursing have warned that despite these routes, it will be hard to recruit staff under the new system as these sectors do not attract sufficient settled workers due to low wages or undesirable roles. Moreover, the Tier 5 Government Authorised Exchange visa route which is run by overarching bodies on behalf of UKVI do not offer sponsorships to migrants working within agriculture, hospitality or the care sectors. So, the question is how are employers in these sectors who rely on migrant workers going to cope when the transition period ends on 31st December 2020? 

One option could be for the Government to reintroduce the Sector Based Scheme (SBS) which operated between 2003 and 2013. It allowed workers to undertake positions in fields outside of agriculture such as hospitality and food processing. Another alternative could be to expand the existing Youth Mobility Scheme (which is currently only available to 8 nationalities) to also include EU nationals. This would allow EU workers to come to the UK to live, work or travel for a period of 24 months without the need of sponsorship from any employer and could help with meeting the demands of employers who rely on low-skilled workers.

The bar is set too high for essential workers. Whether it is the skill level, or the wages and steps needed to be taken to introduce a new immigration route for these essential workers who are putting their health and lives at risk to keep us safe, to deliver our food and to care for our elderly. By dismissing the role that low-skilled workers play in our economy and the lack of a suitable immigration route for these workers, the Government is not only risking harming businesses but also the UK economy. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, it has been proven that the UK needs these low-skilled workers to sustain itself and by not having an immigration route in place for these workers, we are letting those down who are putting their lives at risk to protect us and keeping our society functioning. If the agenda of the government has been to appease the British public, surely this pandemic has shown all of us that these low-skilled workers are not just any workers, they are essential, they are key and they play a very significant role in our economy. So, let’s not just honour them by clapping for them every Thursday but honour them by showing them that there is a place for them in the UK and that they are wanted here.  

About the author

Zenia Chopra is the Head of Client Services within the immigration team. Her role at Kingsley Napley involves seeking new revenue opportunities and improving profitability through careful strategic planning and positioning KN within new markets.

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