As many as 90% of industry jobs will fall short of the proposed new salary threshold for the skilled worker visa, experts have warned.
Insiders sounded a warning over latest government plans to up the minimum salary required for a skilled overseas worker visa from £26,200 to £38,700, which home secretary James Cleverly this week said would help “slash migration levels and curb abuse of the immigration system”.
Exclusive Home Office data shows a big uptick in skilled worker visa applications over the past two years for roles such as butchers, chefs, fishmongers and poultry dressers, as well as managers and directors in retail and wholesale, according to analysis by law firm Eversheds Sutherland.
Visas were granted to around 2,500 butchers and over 400 fishmongers and poultry dressers in the manufacturing sector alone between Q1 2022 and Q2 2023, along with more than 6,000 chefs across the retail and wholesale, accommodation, agriculture and manufacturing sectors.
But an array of other jobs across retail, manufacturing, warehousing and hospitality stood to be affected by the changes, said Eversheds Sutherland – 90% of which have current going rates of under £38,000.
“It’s not a big stretch to think that it’s going to potentially reduce numbers sponsored,” said lawyer Emily Hasted.
Cleverly’s plans also include reducing the shortage occupation list by 20%. Former Defra chief George Eustice told The Grocer the moves would result in “higher inflation and lower growth”.
“Food businesses that have successful products and growing demand will not expand their production unless they think they can recruit the staff they need,” he said.
“It is ridiculous that DJs, PR professionals, economists and orchestra conductors are deemed skilled when we have no shortage of such people, but those who possess dextrous or technical skills in the food industry are deemed unskilled.”
Eustice added that the government “desperately” needed to “move away from the dogma of the so-called ‘skills based’ immigration policy and instead adopt one that fits the needs of our economy”.
“We cannot use immigration policy to socially engineer our economy and we should not allow social prejudice to determine the way we value jobs”, he added.
Under the current system, the hospitality sector issued around 8,500 visas last year, according to HospitalityUK boss Kate Nicholls, which “helped bring in talented chefs and managers of the future”.
Around 95% of those “would no longer be eligible under these plans despite being offered competitive salaries”, she said.
“Around three-quarters of hospitality’s workforce is filled from within the UK but international talent has always been attracted to work in the UK, due to our pedigree for hospitality and developing careers. These critical workers also bring with them a wealth of experience and skills to help further enhance our world-leading hospitality sector.
“We urgently need to see an immigration system that is fit for purpose and reflects both the needs of business and the labour market,” Nicholls added.
Another sector likely to suffer severely from Cleverly’s proposals is meat processing, according to the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS).
Big meat suppliers like Cranswick and Pilgrim’s have benefited from a wave of recruitments from Asian countries – around 3,000 butchers were recruited from the Philippines during the summer alone, with about 500 from Nepal, AIMS said.
But despite the significant numbers, there were still shortfalls of skilled workers, said Greg Tyler, director of recruitment business 360 Recruitment, which works with AIMS to place staff within its members – particularly at SMEs which “have not embraced the notion of becoming a skilled worker visa sponsor”.
“It is complex, expensive and cumbersome”, he added. Tyler warned the implementation of the new rules could lead to a “mad rush” to recruit, with employers “bringing forward hiring plans before the salary cap rises”.
AIMS spokesman Tony Goodger said the trade body was “disappointed the home secretary didn’t take the opportunity to simply scrap the Shortage Occupation List – which was a recommendation made by the Migration Advisory Committee earlier this year”.
“A free flow of labour will grow the UK economy”, he said, adding that the announcement “appears to thwart that ambition”.
In manufacturing, the picture looks equally challenging. The Home Office’s plans came as a new FDF report showed that widening labour challenges were stifling growth in manufacturing and directly fuelling food and drink inflation.
Labour vacancies across a wide range of roles in the sector have risen in the past quarter to 6.5%, from 4.8% in Q2, due to increased production ahead of Christmas, resulting in more job openings that were difficult to fill.
Some of the roles most affected include high-skilled workers such as project engineers, scientists, finance, and software engineers, as well as technical specialists such as field sales support and production operatives, from machine operatives to warehouse.
“We know that, in the longer term, these need to be addressed domestically or through investment in automation and technology,” said FDF chief Karen Betts in response to the skilled worker visa announcement.
“But in the short term we need a flexible immigration system to address gaps in the workforce, which are driving up wages and inflation. The current immigration system is complex, slow and expensive, and the government recognises it does not work well for the farm to fork sector.”
Provision Trade Federation director general Rod Addy said: “I fear raising the salary threshold for Skilled Worker Visas goes too far and will cut off a vital lifeline of staff and succession planning for the food sector in occupations that historically have attracted few UK recruits.
“In an ideal world, food suppliers would be able to invest in automation to offset worker shortages, but many need time and more funding to do this, neither of which they currently have,” he added.
The changes were expected to take effect in the spring, the Home Office said, but no further details have been given.
“People are anxiously waiting to understand when and how this is going to be implemented, particularly for those who are already sponsored, we’re waiting to see whether there are going to be any transitional provisions”, said Eversheds Sutherland’s Hasted.
The plans also come in addition to a raft of other visa-sponsoring related expenses, including an increase in the immigration surcharge next year from £624 up to £1,035, as well as the recent rise in immigration application fees for work visas and potential increases in illegal working penalties.
“It’s just additional measures that we’re hearing from the government that have the potential to affect how employers sponsor individuals,” Hasted added.