Autumn, the season of national party conferences, is effectively a fight for attention amongst politicians and things came to head last week, with the Conservative Party Conference and the many headlines it generated.
Following a fraught few months, the party conference was a chance for the Conservatives to set out their Brexit policies and during the week, Theresa May gave further insight into the government’s proposals to curb immigration.
For many, immigration has been identified as the root cause of Brexit and subsequently, this was always going to be a particularly contentious issue. There is a mistaken belief in some quarters that so-called cheap migrant workers have been undercutting British jobs and for this reason, Theresa May is keen to promise that the number of ‘unskilled’ workers entering the country will fall.
Despite numerous, emphatic warnings from many business organisations and industrial bodies that such an approach will be detrimental, we seem to be heading towards a policy that prioritises skilled labour to the absolute detriment of the so-called ‘unskilled’.
This will be incredibly damaging for the British economy at a time when foreign workers are vital to the success of numerous industrial sectors.
I’ve seen various accounts as to what will class as ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ work under the government’s new guidelines and while none have been confirmed, there has been talk of a minimum wage anywhere between £30,000 and £50,000. At a time when the average British salary has been estimated at around, £28,500, either figure is incredibly high.
Taking the higher figure, The New Statesman published an A-Z of the jobs roles that earn under £50,000 to demonstrate the breadth of what would be classed as ‘unskilled’ moving forward.
The list includes a number of highly-skilled, much sought-after jobs including doctors, builders, academics and waiters.
When we have well-documented recruitment crises in so many of Britain’s professions and industries, I just can’t understand the logic of limiting the number of people coming here to work.
The construction industry is crying out for people and while I applaud the ambition to train more people and improve apprenticeship programmes, employers need workers now. After the damage done to the construction industry in the last recession, the last thing we need is increasing staff shortages hampering growth at a crucial time.
Likewise, the hospitality sector is a massive industry in the UK and we repeatedly see statistics which demonstrate the importance of foreign workers in keeping this industry going.
And the British Retail Consortium has made the valid point that any immigration policy should be based on the needs of the economy, rather than arbitrarily drawing a line based on perceived skill-levels or wages, and I couldn’t agree more strongly.
Working at the forefront of recruitment for employers and businesses across a vast range of sectors and industries, at Acorn we see the shortages and the impact on the productivity and development of organisations first-hand, and we know there is serious unease across the labour market about how roles will be filled if we no longer have a reliable supply of workers looking to come to Britain and earn a steady wage.
The government needs to focus on bringing in ‘key workers’ that plug the gaps across all sectors, all professions, all jobs, and not select or discriminate by idealistic ‘skills’ or ‘salaries’ – it simply won’t work for employers and will be to the serious detriment of British employers and British workers.
Let’s be clear – if businesses cannot make things, or cannot deliver things, or cannot serve its customers – then those businesses will fail – and it will be the local, home-grown workers based in these businesses that will lose their jobs.
Furthermore, the local businesses such as shops, pubs, etc. that rely on the spend of its local community will also close.
Make no mistake, denying employers the opportunity to take on ‘key workers’, regardless of their ‘skills’ or salary, will be the start of new, desperate times for the British economy.
And we are seeing this already; as a direct result of the Brexit referendum employers are already struggling with attracting the right people for their businesses – both skilled and unskilled - as migrant workers, wary of the uncertainty of job security in the UK and the perceived rise in xenophobia have already started to stay away.
Of course, in an ideal world, it would be wonderful to see as many British jobs as possible going to people who already live here but things simply aren’t that crystal cut. Compounded by record unemployment levels, we just don’t have the people either able or willing to do a lot of these jobs. The position presented by the prime minister is not just short-sighted but also incredibly dangerous at an already perilous time for British employers and our economy as a whole.
I urge the government to listen closely to the voice of employers and simply focus on ‘key workers’. That would be a policy that pre-empts and responds to change, that is flexible and adaptable, and will be constantly shaped around the current and future needs of the economy.