A pastry chef handcrafts croissants at The Cavan Bakery's production site in Walton-on-Thames  2100x1154

Chefs, butchers and food processors are amongst the roles most affected by the Home Office’s changes to the skilled worker visa

Food industry companies are “rushing” to apply for skilled worker visas ahead of the government’s salary threshold changes in April, according to an international law firm.

The government announced in December changes to immigration law that will see the minimum salary required for a skilled overseas worker visa increase from £26,200 to £38,700 in a bid to “slash migration levels and curb abuse of the immigration system”.

Several food businesses and trade associations have warned the move will cut out a lifeline of vital staff currently filling hard-to-hire roles such as chefs, butchers, poultry and fish processors, and farmers.

Law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, which represents clients across hospitality, retail and manufacturing, had seen a “clear increase in the number of skilled worker applications submitted over the past few months and a particular rush since the beginning of 2024”, partner Kelvin Tanner told The Grocer.

It had seen an increase in applications of up to 30%, when compared with previous years, in those sectors most impacted by the changes.

“Amongst our clients, we have seen the biggest rush to file applications within the hospitality, retail and manufacturing sectors and for regional roles that would be unable to meet the higher minimum salary thresholds when they are introduced,” Tanner said.

He added the firm’s clients in the hospitality sector in London were “already finding it very difficult to fill vacancies for specialist chefs from within the UK following the end of the EU free movement”.

“In addition to training people locally, they were forced to develop overseas recruitment pipelines that will become unviable based on the new Skilled Worker salary levels.”

The size of the salary increases that businesses are facing with the new laws was what was driving the rush to apply, lawyers said.

Read more: Skilled worker visa salary increase to shut out ‘vital’ staff

Visas were granted to around 2,500 butchers and over 400 fishmongers and poultry dressers in the manufacturing sector alone from Q1 2022 to Q2 2023, along with more than 6,000 chefs across the retail and wholesale, accommodation, agriculture and manufacturing sectors, according to analysis by law firm Eversheds Sutherland.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) wrote to home secretary James Cleverly last week, warning that meat producers working to 2% margins will not be able to absorb the costs of raising minimum wages for overseas workers.

The minimum salary increase “could cost hundreds of millions of pounds” for the meat processing sector alone, the trade body said.

Instead of tackling the issue of high migration levels, the move would stoke food price inflation and be passed on to the British consumer, as many companies in the industry had no option but to hire foreign labour, BMPA CEO Nick Allen said.

“Unfortunately, there is a perception that UK businesses utilise migrant labour as a “cheaper option” to UK-based labour. This is simply not the case.

“The Skilled Worker route offers our industry access to labour that we are unable to source within the UK and is already at a significantly higher cost than recruiting a UK-based worker.”

He added that forcing companies to take on overseas butchers at £38,700 represented a 49% increase to current salary levels, which sit around £26,200 for a worker in the UK.

“This would instantly spark a raft of equal pay claims under the Equality Act 2010, as existing British workers have a legal right to demand to be paid an equal salary for the same work as their newly arrived overseas colleagues,” Allen warned.

Read more: New immigration rules will ‘disproportionately impact’ food businesses, ALP tells Home Office

The Association of Labour Providers told the Home Office last month that the changes to immigration rules “disproportionately” affected food businesses that relied on overseas labourers.

Many in the industry have warned the UK will become less competitive on the international trade market if businesses are faced with higher wages and labour shortages, as they will have to contract their business and reduce the amount of food they produce or import more from abroad.

It would also dent Britain’s food security and spark fresh animal welfare issues as animals started backing up on farms, with not enough processing workers to handle the volume.

“Either way, the UK farming industry would take a long-term systemic hit,” Allen noted.