Economy /

Taking back control of Britain’s borders: the promise that pushed through Brexit. What, in practice, does that mean? This week, we found out. 

British Border Control in Reality

From January 2021, lower-skilled workers will no longer be considered for UK visas. Businesses will have to wean themselves from cheap European labor, a resource they’ve grown too dependent on, the British government believes. 

Instead, they’ll have to source staff from the country’s native population, or call upon the 3.2 million EU citizens already based in the UK. It’s a bold move; but a necessary one, ministers say.

Not all are convinced. From hospitality to construction, key sectors of the British economy are reliant on migrant workers from Europe, whose employment rights are ensured under EU rules. Particularly from the continent’s post-Soviet East, staff arrive on British shores ready to do the low-paid jobs that most born and raised in the UK will not.

Social Care Likely to be Hit Especially Hard

Social care — the sector involved with caring for the old and infirm — will be hit particularly hard, industry voices warn. 

“There will be increased pressure on our existing staff,” says Karolina Gerlich, chief executive of the National Association of Care & Support Workers (NACAS). “There will be longer working hours, which is not helpful as people need to be rested to do the job properly.”

Though demanding, social care roles tend not to require formal academic qualifications – nor do they pay particularly well. For these reasons, they will be categorized as ‘low-skilled’ under the new points-based immigration regime.

What About Foreigners Who Still Want to Work in the UK?

Foreigners hoping to live and work in the UK will have attain 70-points for their visa application to be approved. Speaking proficient English, working in a sector suffering from staff shortages, winning a job offer with a generous salary (above £25,600) – each of these will earn an individual points.

Crucially, however, it’s their certified skills (such as higher-level academic qualifications) that are likely to make the difference. With one-in-11 social care roles already unfilled, there are worries that a staffing crisis might grip the sector.

The government says these fears are overblown, urging companies to focus on finding domestic employees to fill the gaps. But with UK unemployment figures nearing record lows, it’s fair to question whether there are enough British job-seekers to pick up the slack. 

Where Could Britain Find Workers if European Employees Dry Up?

Where else, then, might staff be found? Some have suggested that workers could be drawn from the NHS, taking advantage of the skills overlap between social care and medical roles. But Britain’s health service is in the throes of its own personnel crisis and has few staff to spare.

With other sectors — like low-paid hospitality and construction jobs — it seems more to be an issue of attitude. Brits simply will not toil in hard outdoor labor or serve drinks at a hotel bar for the minimum wage of £8.72 an hour, industry chiefs say. But applicants from Europe — particularly from Eastern countries where pay is particularly low — will. 

Still, the government is clear: no route for lower-skilled immigrant staff will be introduced. The most highly qualified individuals, such as scientists and engineers, will – however – find it easier to find UK jobs from 2021 onwards.

This, ironically, might see the levels of British net migration increase. Since the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016, the number of European migrants moving to Britain has fallen. Arrivals from outside of Europe, however, have grown. Given the new rules relax restrictions on non-EU migration, there is reason to believe that these numbers will only increase.     

Would that be at odds with Brexit’s promise to retake control of Britain’s border and protect UK jobs? No, not necessarily – the government will have the power to tighten restrictions whenever it wants. But for some working in the country’s most important sectors, it’s about more than just numbers on a chart. It’s about building the homes desperately needed by Britain’s growing population, or caring for those who want to reach the end of their lives with dignity.