Will recommended changes to the UK’s migration policy bring an end to the industry’s skill shortage?

Will recommended changes to the UK’s migration policy bring an end to the industry’s skill shortage?

Recent recommendations will allow more kitchens to access migrant labour from around the world – but is it enough to challenge the skills shortage? Vincent Wood reports.

Immigration policy is in the midst of sweeping reforms in the UK. Freedom of movement between the UK and EU member states is likely to soon come to an end and the government is looking at a post-Brexit system that will favour high-skilled migrants.

It is an approach that could particularly impact hospitality, where 16.7% of employees come from the European Economic Area and 29.6% come from the rest of the world. As Brexit draws nearer, with the potential for more power to decide who is allowed into the country being handed to Westminster, the industry has warned that any curb on immigration could cause a chronic skills shortage.

However, last week, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) offered some potential relief when it recommended changes to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) that could open the door to hospitality workers from across the world.

The SOL prioritises workers needed by industries struggling to find staff, allowing them to bypass resident labour market tests – even if the annual limit on working visas of 20,700 is reached. It also reduces salary thresholds and cuts application fees.

The MAC has reassessed swathes of the workforce to decide which job roles should have preference when it comes to granting full-time working visas under the Tier 2 [general work visa] scheme, and has recommended increasing the percentage of workforce roles under the SOL from 1% to 9%.

It has also called for the simplifying of restrictions – with the criteria for hiring chefs being a key example.

The Deliveroo effect

In 2013, when the SOL was last reviewed, guidelines ruled out the hiring of chefs in kitchens with a takeaway offering in a bid to stop fast-food workers being given priority.

But, later that year, Deliveroo was founded and, along with other delivery providers, it has seen a takeaway offering become a part of many independent restaurants.

Professor Alan Manning, chair of the MAC, told The Caterer: “We removed that criteria because we thought it was a bit anachronistic now, given that pretty much everyone offers a takeaway service of some kind. But I think the more general point here is that one of the reasons we wanted to simplify things as much as possible is so that, as the labour market evolves, it doesn’t bump up against rules in the system which at the time made perfect sense but no longer do. The system is better future-proofed if, where possible, we have these simplified lists of occupations.”

The MAC is independent of the government and its reforms are only recommendations at this stage – however, they are likely to be implemented. The committee works closely with the Home Office and its last report, which outlined how the UK’s immigration system could operate after Brexit, has been heavily incorporated into prospective government policy.

For the few

But, despite a slight easing for some kitchens, plenty of restrictions in the immigration system still remain. Employees must be at sous chef level or above or, alternatively, a specialist chef not easily acquired in the UK. The legislation also favours independent restaurants, ruling out chefs who deal in fast food or ‘standard fare’.

How the latter is applied could be contentious. Under current rules, standard fare is considered to apply to centralised chain restaurants or “those where dishes and/or cooking sauces are bought in ready-made rather than prepared from fresh”. As part of the simplification process, the newly proposed SOL does not add any definition to the term.

Beyond this are also the myriad issues that make the immigration system difficult for the industry to access. On top of needing to fit the specific outlined criteria, chefs will have to reach a salary threshold of £29,750 a year after deductions for accommodation and meals.

Kate Nicholls

Kate Nicholls, chief of industry trade body UKHospitality, said that, while the change was welcome, it was not enough without changes to the salary requirements. She said: “Removing the punitive take- away clause is a positive step and one we called for in our response earlier this year. This reflects the increasingly diverse nature of the UK’s culinary sector and the move to more app-based deliveries. It also helps restaurants that have recently struggled to fill vacancies, particularly those offering authentic Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese food, among others.

“However, the MAC needs to go further and abolish the salary threshold which limits our ability to deal with staffing shortages. Any future immigration policy needs to be fit for purpose, beneficial to the UK economy, and allow our sector to grow and thrive. We will be making these points to ministers and future leadership candidates in the coming weeks and months.”

Coming up short

Further issues remain on the horizon. The MAC report on shortage occupations focuses on the more skilled heights of kitchen roles. Meanwhile, struggles remain in hiring lower-level kitchen positions and front of house roles – jobs where employers could previously draw on European migrants. However, as growth in immigration slows, hospitality is one of the industries set to feel the pressure. Professor Manning added: “The rate of growth that we had before has just flattened off. That means that some employers who might have provided someone’s first job in the UK – but perhaps not their last job – will find that flow has been drying up.”

The changes also do nothing to challenge the lack of mid-tier chefs currently required in the sector. Professor Manning said this was unlikely to change any time soon. “At the moment, chefs as a whole are classified as a medium-skilled occupation. The view in the past and our continued view is that, within that occupation, there are some more highly skilled workers, and those more highly skilled roles should be managed through [the Tier 2 visa system]. It’s not that it should be opened up generally to chefs as a whole.”

The looming question however is, if implemented, how long the SOL changes would last. The government’s pledge to introduce a new high-skilled immigration system is slated for 2021 at the earliest.

Early plans suggest the government could remove the cap on the number of Tier 2 visas the country can issue, making the need for priority workforces – and in turn the SOL as a whole – unnecessary. However, as the nation edges away from European freedom of movement and towards a high-skilled approach, immigration policy continues to risk exacerbating the skills shortage gripping the sector.