The signing of a new trade agreement between the British government and India could see increased numbers of migrant workers arriving in the UK. Adam McCulloch talks to immigration experts.
Last week, the Department for International Trade announced the signing of an Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) between international business secretary Liz Truss and India’s minister of commerce and industry Piyush Goyal.
With the scrapping of the resident labour market test from the Tier 2 visa requirements in December, the introduction of a two-year student work visa from this academic year, and the lower thresholds in the new Immigration Act, it is considered that it will be easier for non-EU migrant workers to come to the UK than previously.
This easing of visa rules could be a stepping stone towards a free trade deal with India as movement restrictions historically has been a block to negotiating such a deal.
During her trip to India, Truss secured investment from Mumbai-based steel and tech giant Tata – already one of the UK’s biggest employers – to create 1,500 skilled technology sector jobs in the UK. She also agreed to relaunch the UK-India CEO Forum.
Yash Dubal, director at immigration specialists AY&J Solicitors, predicted an influx of migrant workers from South Asia. He told Personnel Today he thought the UK’s new points-based immigration regime would make it much easier for the ETP to develop into a full free trade deal because Indian workers would find it easier to migrate to the UK.
Dubal said: “There has been a marked increase in inquiries from Indian citizens who want visas to work in the UK and this is all driven by specific relaxations in UK immigration rules. When you analyse the details of the new system it is apparent that certain measures have been put in place to encourage more people to come here, rather than to deter them – which is the message the government would rather people believe.
“The resident labour market test has been abolished, there has been a reduction in the skills threshold applied to visa applicants and the two-year post-study visa that allows foreign students to stay in the UK after their studies conclude has been reinstated.
“The UK government has been rather clever because those who want less immigration have had their attention diverted with talk of tough new rules, when the reality is that there is a much more liberal regime that favours foreign workers. It is clever smoke and mirrors.”
He added that businesses would face a massive shortage of skilled staff and would be looking for foreign labour after the pandemic receded.
Immigration specialist Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, added that increased flows of migrant workers from the subcontinent were likely: “Historically, we’ve always seen a high proportion of Indian nationals coming into the UK to take up tech-sponsored roles and this trend will continue with this latest partnership,” she said.
The UK government has been rather clever because those who want less immigration have had their attention diverted with talk of tough new rules, when the reality is that there is a much more liberal regime that favours foreign workers” – Yash Dubal, AY&J Solicitors
“Our new immigration system is intended to make sponsorship more streamlined and quicker and this will undoubtedly make the UK more attractive as a destination. Life sciences is a priority for both India and the UK and we know that the Home Office says it is keen to attract the ‘brightest and the best’.”
The UK’s reluctance to offer preferential treatment to Indian workers to travel and work here has been a historic stumbling block to a free trade deal. The issue proved problematic as far back as 2007 when the EU was negotiating a deal with India. Ironically, it was the UK, then an EU member state, which objected and put a brake on the negotiations.
The visa issue surfaced again when Theresa May visited India in 2016 and in 2018 when Indian officials reiterated the demand for easier migration routes to the UK as part of a post-Brexit free trade deal.
Successive reports have also advised that the immigration issue will be key to a successful deal.
A 2018 CBI report advised that easing visa rules for India would be key to forging a trade deal with the country. It recommended that reviving the popular post-study work visa for Indian students was one way forward. And in 2019, a foreign affairs select committee report described the UK’s neglected ties with India as an “expensive missed opportunity”, noting Britain had slipped from being its second largest trade partner in 1998-99 to 17th in 2018-19.
The committee’s report stated: “While the Global Britain strategy is barely being communicated in India, the ‘hostile environment’ message is being heard loud and clear.”
Meanwhile, the EU also met Indian officials earlier in February, involving Piyush Goyal, and the EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis. The ministers “agreed for further deepening of bilateral trade and investment relationship through a series of regular engagements, aiming at quick deliverable for the businesses in these tough times”.