Migration experts highlight Brexit risks for low-skilled jobs

Agriculture is one of the sectors concerned about access to EU migrant labour as farmers are dependent on thousands of seasonal workers to pick crops. APA images/REX/Shutterstock

A new study on how low-skilled roles will be filled in the UK after Brexit has warned that alternatives to hiring EU labour may risk labour exploitation, inefficiency and high costs. 

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford report compares the two most likely models for a labour migration route after Brexit – youth mobility schemes and low-skilled work permits – which could operate side-by-side once freedom of movement ends in 2021.

An estimated 500,000 people born in EU countries were, in 2017, employed in the UK in low-wage roles in cleaning, warehousing, food processing, agriculture and catering. The report notes that there is no consensus about whether or how much migration is needed into low-skilled jobs in the UK.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said: “There’s no objective, evidence-based way to decide exactly how much low-skilled migration the UK ought to have after Brexit. It’s even more difficult to decide which industries should have access to migrant workers and which shouldn’t.”

Youth mobility schemes already exist that allow 18-30 year olds from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada to work in the UK for up to two years.

Ministers have already confirmed that the government wants to extend the scheme to EU countries. Youth mobility is not regarded as a model, however, that is likely to fill labour gaps where there are insufficient British people willing to work, found the study.

A work permit system oriented towards low paid jobs in agriculture and healthcare would address labour shortages more efficiently but could lead to exploitation because workers were dependent on a single employer and a specific job.

The Migration Observatory report concluded that for the government, youth mobility was easier to manage and would be the less complex of the two models to administer. This was because the government did not have to police complex programme rules and could rely on the market to determine where demand lies, “rather than engaging in the difficult and potentially politicised process of granting access to workers for some industries over others”.

However, because youth mobility was not a targeted labour migration scheme the government would not be able to set terms and conditions of work (such as wage rates). The report concluded that such a scheme would succeed in increasing overall labour supply but not respond to areas of labour need. It would also result in an over-reliance on younger workers and a loss of older experienced staff. It would be likely that youth mobility would mean a less settled population with lower levels of integration, the report contends.

There’s no objective, evidence-based way to decide exactly how much low-skilled migration the UK ought to have after Brexit” – Madeleine Sumption

Work permits would give the government more control over the specific jobs for visa holders. However, such a system would involve extensive central planning on eligibility and need from the government, which, given the example of Tier 2 visas, may not prove successful. Additionally work permits had the disadvantage of allowing employers more control over their workers and reducing the need for organisations to compete with each other for staff, leaving some visa holders more at risk of exploitation. It was also pointed out that the cost and paperwork for sponsorship would be prohibitive for many firms.

Work permit schemes for farm workers did exist for more than 60 years until 2013 when the availability of free movement EU workers saw them closed down.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said: “There’s no guarantee that youth mobility can provide staff for unpalatable roles in out-of-the-way places. That’s because the scheme gives workers lots of options, and people with options often prefer to work in shops and bars rather than muddy fields or food processing plants.”

She added: “Employer-sponsored visas give government more control over the work that migrants do, but making sure the visas don’t facilitate abuse is a real challenge. If workers can’t leave a bad job, there’s more responsibility on government to prevent exploitation.

There’s no guarantee that youth mobility can provide staff for unpalatable roles in out-of-the-way places” – Sumption

“In theory this should be possible with careful monitoring and oversight, but enforcing labour standards is not an area where the UK has the best track record.”

The report analysed a range of ONS statistics including 2012-17 changes in migrant worker population by place of birth. This revealed that six years ago there were 1.6 million EU-born migrant workers in all occupations as opposed to 2.4 million in 2017.

The corresponding figures for non-EU born migrant workers were 2.7 million and 3.2 million. Another table showed that 116,000 lower skilled workers arrived in the UK between 2012 and 2017 compared with 83,000 lower skilled non-EU workers. For higher skilled roles the relative figures are 121,000 (EU) and 124,000 (non EU).

The Home Office maintained that after the leaving the EU, the UK would have in place an immigration system that would work in the best interests of the country. A spokesperson said: “This system will be based on evidence. The government has commissioned advice from the Migration Advisory Committee and we continue to engage with a range of stakeholders.”

Exploiting the Opportunity? Low-Skilled Work Migration After Brexit, The Migration Observatory

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