UK plans to issue low-skilled migrants with short-term visas after Brexit risk aggravating public concerns about immigration while increasing bureaucracy for foreign workers and employers, the engineering consultancy Arup has warned.
The government’s long-awaited immigration white paper, had been due out next week but may be delayed amid cabinet squabbling over the impact on industry of new immigration curbs.
It will outline proposals for a new visa regime which brings EU migrants under the same rules as those from Asia and the US.
However, a leaked draft of the paper contains proposals for an 11-month visa with “restricted entitlements and rights”, aimed at roles in sectors such as construction, social care and hospitality which pay below the £30,000 salary threshold for a standard work visa.
The leak, reported by the Telegraph, has prompted concern among businesses about the “churn” effects of a revolving low-skilled workforce.
Alexander Jan, chief economist at Arup, which employs 15,000 people across 43 countries, said this could exacerbate the aspects of immigration which are most unpopular with the British public.
“Many of the problems with immigration are with transiency because that affects how places operate, how longer-term residents feel about neighbourhoods,” Mr Jan told the Financial Times.
“If you’ve got fruit pickers or construction workers on very short-term visas, I think that risks aggravating the concerns some people said they had about the impact of immigrants on their communities.”
Executives at Arup are particularly concerned about post-Brexit labour shortages because their clients in the construction industry rely on an EU labour force which could be cut off when free movement ends.
Currently, more than a quarter of construction workers in London are from the EU. But roles such as plumbers, heating engineers, electrical technicians and civil engineering technicians earn well below the minimum salary for the standard work visa.
Mr Jan also warned that unless the new immigration system was quick and easy to use, the UK could lose out to other countries which are more welcoming.
“The harder we make it for ourselves, the more our competitors are likely to benefit,” he said. “The idea that people will jump over these obstacles in any event is based on a naive view of the world.”
Reports from industry show that even before new immigration rules are imposed, skills shortages are beginning to show. In the second quarter of this year, about one-third of UK contractors had difficulty recruiting workers and half had difficulty hiring electricians, according to the Construction Products Association.
The Home Office said it would introduce an immigration system “that focuses on the skills and talents people have to offer, not where they come from”.
“It will ensure the UK continues to attract the people the nation needs to compete on the global stage while ensuring that immigration is reduced to sustainable levels,” it said.
Instead of pushing lower-skilled workers into a temporary visa stream, Arup and other employers are calling on the Home Office to lower its salary threshold to around the level of the London living wage, which stands at £20,155.
The campaign, launched on Tuesday by the business lobby London First, argues that this would open the tier-two system to a broader range of skills. The equivalent visa threshold in Sweden is set at £13,400.
London First has also proposed that the government scraps its target of bringing down annual net immigration to the “tens of thousands”, which leads to policies such as the 11-month visa which is designed to bring in migrants without pushing up the statistics.
The group has also called for fast-tracking of visas for jobs identified in the government’s long-term industrial strategy such as artificial intelligence, automotive technologies, construction and life sciences.
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