The tabloids don’t normally pay much attention to the state of our labour market but this spring has been different: from one-legged Romanian roofers to the victims of Morecambe Bay, immigrant workers have been headline news and employers could be forgiven for feeling nervous about the whole subject.
Last month, for example, a survey by the Institute for Employment Studies found that UK businesses were impressed with the contribution that their refugee employees make but are scared to admit they employ them because they think it will harm their custom. Things are likely to get more heated in the short term, particularly if the British National Party succeeds in taking a seat in the coming European elections.
But what are the practical effects of the current debate for employers in the grocery sector, which depends more than most on immigrant and refugee labour for commercial success, and what should organisations be doing to ensure they are ahead of the game?
There are three strands to this issue that affect employers. The first is European Union enlargement, when 10 new countries join the EU from May 1, most in central and eastern Europe. This new pool of potential recruits is good news for short-staffed firms - immigrants from the likes of Poland and Slovakia will no longer require work permits.
However, employers will need to ensure they are complying with the government’s new worker registration scheme, wherby migrants must register with a national database. Home Office guidelines are promised.
Second, there’s the continuing problem of screening for illegal workers. The Home Office plans to put more responsibility on employers for vetting applicants and it has tightened up the forms of ID that are deemed acceptable - short versions of birth certificates and easily-forged letters from the Home Office are off the approved list as of May 1, for example.
However, Esther O’Halloran, head of people at sandwich firm EAT, says employers are facing a nightmare trying to identify whether documents are real or not, particularly in industries with high turnover and lots of casual and temporary staff.
A survey published last autumn by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation revealed that a third of businesses were receiving applications from illegal workers on a weekly basis.
And third, there’s the aftermath of Morecambe Bay. The proposed Gangmaster (Licensing) Bill will require employers to ensure that casual staff provided by agencies are legally allowed to work in this country, and that their employment rights are being upheld. This significantly ups the ante for employers, making them responsible for monitoring their suppliers’ practices as well as their own.
The key, says Rebecca Clake, a policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is to ensure you have clear policies in place and to see to it that everyone who gets involved in recruitment understands those policies and implements them rigorously. “If you don’t, you could be facing a very big fine indeed,” says Clake. The penalty is currently up to £5,000 per illegal worker.
That doesn’t mean you have to be heartless if a candidate turns up without the necessary paperwork. Why not direct them to the local Citizens’ Advice bureau so they have a chance of putting their files in order, rather than shutting the door in their face? Employers also need to ensure they treat everyone fairly and consistently. Discriminating against applicants on the grounds of race or appearance is even more foolhardy than failing to check their credentials properly.
If you are going to ask applicants for documentary evidence of their right to work in this country, make sure you apply the policy without prejudice.