Labour Research April 2020


New immigration system spells disaster say unions

The government’s new points-based immigration system, announced in February and due to take effect in January 2021, will create many casualties unions are warning. 

The new post-Brexit system will end free movement and treat EU and non-EU citizens equally. The government says it will open up the UK to “the brightest and the best from around the world” and “reassert control of our borders”, reducing overall levels of migration. It also claims it will force up wages by ending “the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country”. 

But unions say the plans spell disaster for sectors including social care, and risk increasing the exploitation of migrant workers as well as driving down pay and terms and conditions more generally. 

Under the government’s new points-based immigration system, free movement will end and both EU and non-EU citizens will need a total of 70 points to come and work in the UK. 

Migrant workers will have to speak English, have a job offer with a salary of at least £25,600 in most cases — although there will be a lower threshold for jobs in shortage occupations — and have qualifications equivalent to A levels or above. 

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the non-departmental public body that advises the government on migration issues, will produce a shortage occupation list covering all jobs encompassed by the skilled worker route and keep this under regular review.

The new points-based immigration system

The government’s new points-based immigration system will end free movement for EU nationals and treat EU and non-EU citizens the same. 

It will assign points for specific qualifications, skills, salaries or professions, and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points. All migrants will have to speak English. 

A total of 70 points will be required to be eligible to apply to work in the UK. There are three essential or “non-tradeable” requirements: 

• offer of job by an approved sponsor: 20 points;

• job at appropriate skill level: 20 points; and

• speaks English at required level: 10 points.

The other criteria (from which they must have at least another 20 points) are tradeable — more points are available for salary, qualifications and if the job is classified as a shortage occupation: • salary of £20,480 (minimum) — £23,039: zero points; 

• salary of between £23,040 and £25,599: 10 points; 

• salary of £25,600 or above: 20 points — the general salary threshold;

• job in a designated shortage occupation: 20 points; 

• educational qualification — PhD in subject relevant to job: 10 points; and

• PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job: 20 points. 

Anyone wanting to come to the UK to work must have a job offer. The general salary threshold will fall from £30,000 to £25,600 and to £20,480 for designated shortage occupations. 

The current skills threshold will be lowered from degree level to A-level or equivalent, but there will be no general route for low-skilled or temporary workers or self-employed people. 

Last month, home secretary Priti Patel asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the composition of the shortage occupation lists.

The cap on the number of skilled workers will be scrapped, and a small number of highly-skilled workers will be allowed to enter the UK without a job offer under the global talent scheme. 

As is currently the case, skilled workers will be able to be accompanied by their dependants. However, the upfront costs for bringing family members to the UK will be prohibitive for many. 

The system retains the rights of artists, entertainers, sportspeople and musicians to enter for performances, competitions and auditions. There will also be special arrangements for seasonal workers who harvest produce. A cap of 10,000 places is being set, up from 2,500, but well short of the NFU farmers’ union’s demand for 70,000. 

Student visa routes will also be points-based. Those wishing to study in the UK will have to show they have an offer from an approved educational institution, can support themselves financially and speak English.

Increased costs

Foreign nationals wanting to work in the UK must pay for a visa costing £1,220 per person, or £900 for occupations on the shortage occupation list. In addition, there is an annual, upfront Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) per person regardless of whether they actually use the NHS. 

In his first Budget last month, new chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an increase in the IHS from £400 to £624 per year. The rate for children under the age of 18 is £470. 

For students and those entering on the youth mobility scheme, the surcharge will rise from £300 to £470.

In November 2019, academic geographer Gareth Edwards calculated that a nurse coming to work in the UK with their family, including two children, would face upfront costs of more than £14,000 in visas and health surcharges. 

The increased IHS rates come into force in October 2020 and will extend to include future European Economic Area (EEA) temporary migrants at the increased rate from January 2021.

The government says the system will “transform the way in which all migrants come to the UK to work, study, visit or join their family” and claims it will “create a high-wage, high-skill, high productivity economy”. 

It will give priority to those with the highest skills and greatest talents, it says, while remaining committed to protecting individuals from exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers.

“We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down,” said home secretary Priti Patel. 

“We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential.”

The government says the UK must “shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation”. Employers will need to adjust.

Unions were swift to condemn the proposals. Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect specialists’ union, said it was hard to see how the plans would not make Britain “a smaller, poorer and less successful country in the future”.

She condemned a dogmatic approach to immigration rather than listening properly to the needs of workers and businesses. “Salary thresholds are the wrong way to get the kind of immigration our economy needs,” she added.

Even with a reduction in the salary threshold and special recognition for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), “many essential roles like laboratory and pharmaceuticals technicians will still not meet the level required”. 

The general secretary of the GMB general union, Tim Roache, described the new system as “a knee-jerk policy that poses huge risks to the economy”.

“This policy doesn’t tackle the root causes of many people’s concerns — the exploitation of workers, whoever they are, by cynical employers has created a race to the bottom in terms, conditions and pay,” he said. 

Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of the Unite general union, said workers, whether in hospitality or agriculture, would be distressed to hear a government minister actively encouraging employers to replace them with robots. 

And she said Unite has “seen first-hand what the abuse of migrant workers can do to a workforce and a community” — and for years has called on the government to do more to uphold and enforce labour standards.

“Had they done so we would not have seen the abuses of migrant labour so prevalent in recent years,” she said. 

“Unfortunately, the government is still ignoring the pressing need to invest in labour market enforcement to ensure that workplaces and workers are safe, that the rate for the job is being paid, and that there are no unlawful deductions being made from pay packets.”

At current rates of investment, she added, an employer can expect a visit once every 500 years from HMRC — a signal to “the rogues” that they can get away with ripping off workers. 

“Scapegoating migrants and playing to the gallery may get some cheap headlines, but it’s wrong and puts whole sectors — such as social care and food, not to mention the NHS — at risk,” Roache added.

Both the GMB and the UNISON public services union have focussed particularly on the impact of the planned immigration system on an already desperately struggling social care sector. 

Impact of the new system on social care sector

Public services union UNISON says the new immigration system spells “absolute disaster” for the care system. Yet care “doesn’t even get a mention in the home secretary’s plans”. 

The care workforce has increased by 22% since 2009, with 1.6 million people employed in adult social care in England alone. But England also has 122,000 vacancies and the sector is already reliant on care workers from the EU. 

It makes no sense to prevent employers from hiring the staff they need, especially when there are currently nowhere near enough people in the UK who want to work in care, says the union. 

With evidence that some 1.5 million people need care but are going without because there are not enough workers, UNISON estimates that the UK will require an extra million care workers by 2025. 

However, a recent union survey suggested almost half (49%) of care workers were thinking of leaving their job. Around three quarters (73%) cited low pay, with more than four in 10 (44%) saying they could earn more money elsewhere.

More than half (53%) pointed to the lack of time they have to deliver care.

UNISON policy officer Narmada Thiranagama told Labour Research: “Preventing care employers from recruiting from overseas has huge implications for care homes and for the ongoing support of the elderly and vulnerable in their own homes.” 

“In the government’s desperation to be seen to be keeping its Brexit promises and take a tough stance on immigration, ministers seem happy to sell large sectors of the economy — in particular social care — down the river.”

According to a new Office for National Statistics analysis requested by the GMB general union, care in the UK is facing “an almost 500,000-person black hole thanks to the government’s insulting immigration policy and failure to properly fund the sector”. 

The analysis found there were more than 350,000 adult care workers who were born in EU and non-EU countries in the year to September 2019, a figure that has increased by 43% since 2009-10. 

Around 115,000 care workers are originally from the EU and 237,000 were born outside the EU, meaning almost a fifth of the workforce was born outside the UK.

There is also an exceptionally high vacancy rate of 8%, compared to a rate of 2.8% across all sectors.

“At a time when our care system is facing its greatest ever crisis, this government seems determined to hack away at its greatest asset — our carers,” said GMB national officer Rachel Harrison.

Average earnings of care workers employed by private providers were just £16,200 last year, according to the independent charity Skills for Care — well below the new £25,600 earnings threshold (see box on page 10). 

However, unlike graduates, scientists, NHS staff and agricultural workers, under the new immigration rules care workers will not receive any special dispensation.

“Care work is highly skilled but for years has been poorly paid so struggles to recruit from workers who live in the UK,” Thiranagama explained. 

“The government says it expects employers to adjust to the new immigration rules. In social care, the employer not paying up is the government, so we look forward to them ‘adjusting’. 

“The answer to the social care crisis lies in their hands — they are the ones who lay down the parameters for local government commissioning models.”

UNISON policy officer Narmada Thiranagama believes the government’s immigration plans will have a huge impact on migrant workers, their colleagues and people who rely on the services they provide, both within and beyond social care. 

UNISON has highlighted the extent of violence in healthcare, for example, and shown that levels of violence increase when areas are short staffed. Workloads and stress levels also increase. 

“The proposals are unfair to migrant workers, but they are also going to have an impact on the ability to deliver public services to vulnerable people,” she told Labour Research. 

“After a decade of austerity there is no resilience left in the system. We are going into a perfect storm for social care that will hit other parts of the economy.”

With the existing hostile environment extending to more migrants than ever before, she says the new immigration rules are an issue for everyone.

“Unless you’ve experienced it, it is difficult to understand how callous and inhumane it is,” she added. 

In a recent blog, TUC policy officer Rosa Crawford explained how the new restrictions on migrant workers “will make it easier for bad bosses to undercut and exploit everyone who works”.

Under the new rules, for example, the only way to take up lower-skilled jobs will be to apply for short-term youth mobility or seasonal agricultural visas. 

TUC research looking at short-term visa schemes in Austria and Canada found workers on temporary visas are unlikely to leave bad employers or report abuse to the authorities out of fear they will lose their immigration status and become undocumented. 

As undocumented workers have almost no ability to claim employment rights in the UK, Crawford explains, introducing a system like this in the UK will make it easier for employers to use migrant workers to undercut others, driving down pay and conditions for all.

United Voices of the World (UVW) union organiser Petros Elia says the government’s proposals are “political pandering” that will do little to achieve its aim of seeing British workers take up jobs currently undertaken by migrant workers. 

The reason British workers aren’t taking up those jobs is not because of migrant workers, he says, but “because pay is low and the treatment is terrible” in sectors heavily dependent on migrant labour like cleaning, catering and security. 

“Why would they take up those jobs unless there are better wages, job security and job progression and decent treatment and respect?” he added. “If the government genuinely wanted more non-migrant applicants to apply in those sectors, they would have brought in Labour Party manifesto commitments including mandatory sectoral collective bargaining, an increase in the minimum wage to the real Living Wage rate and other measures to give workers a voice at work.”

Recent UVW campaigns have seen groups of predominantly migrant workers win important victories. They have forced the London School of Economics to end outsourcing, for example, and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust has “in-housed” around 1,000 Sodexo cleaners, caterers, porters and other service staff as full NHS employees, winning millions of pounds in pay, pensions and sick pay.

The problem is not migrant workers but unorganised workers, Elia emphasises. And the new rules will mean migrant workers working off the books, making them harder to organise, more vulnerable and more insecure. 

He fears the rules will also intensify the hostile environment and empower anti-migrant sentiments and even fuel hate crimes. 

And the rules could be just the first in a string of legislative changes, making it even more vital that unions condemn and campaign against the plans. 

Thiranagama told Labour Research: “Using immigration control to go after one group of workers makes everyone in the labour market more vulnerable. Exploitative conditions are contagious.”