Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Zyama Ciupijus, Jo Cutter, Chris Forde, CERIC
The coronavirus crisis has ignited debate over ‘essential’, ‘skilled’ and ‘high public value’, and has brought into sharp focus the contradictions in the government’s post-Brexit points-based migration system. In this blog, and a more detailed briefing, we ask whether the current crisis will compel policy makers in the UK to rethink the narrow economic and salary threshold criteria that have been proposed to determine the eligibility of migrants to undertake work in the UK.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having profound effects on work and employment across the world. 4 out of 5 workers, out of a total workforce of 3.3 billion globally, have had their workplaces partially or totally closed as a result of the crisis.
The impact of coronavirus on global mobility and migration flows is also profound. The pandemic has led to an urgent re-assessment of the regulation of migration, with more than 200 countries implementing coronavirus-related restrictions on border entries, including on those migrating for economic reasons.
In the UK, the COVID-19 crisis has brought into even sharper focus the crisis of labour mobility that was triggered by the UK Exit from the European Union. Should the UK government should seek to extend the transition period beyond December 31st 2020, in order to avoid inflicting a double pain for UK economy from the coronavirus crisis and Brexit? More fundamentally, will the coronavirus pandemic force a re-think of the way that governments intervene to regulate migration, given changing perceptions of essential and high public value roles?
The Points-Based System: outdated and unfit for purpose?
The analyse the Points-Based System in more detail in our longer briefing paper. The main features are that all applicants will require a sponsor before moving to the UK, a job offer at the required skill level (RQF 3 and above) and a required level of English language, each of which generates a number of points. Other characteristics, including the salary level of the job, and whether the job is on the Shortage Occupation List can be ‘traded’ to reach the required points threshold to qualify a work permit.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there had already been widespread criticism of this new system by unions and employer bodies. The underlying approach of seeking to attract ‘the brightest and the best’ was seen as outdated and likely to lead to acute labour shortages in particular sectors. There had been widespread calls for a lowering of the salary and skills thresholds that were in the proposals.
The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the fault lines in this points-based system. Occupations that are recognised as essential in the COVID-19 crisis, and where migrants are heavily concentrated – in healthcare, healthcare, transportation, food processing and delivery – include many roles that are defined at low-skill and value in the proposed post-Brexit points Based system of migration. The proposed new system regulating migrants’ entry in the UK does not include a channel for such “low skilled” workers, only allowing entry in exceptional circumstances where workers are classified by the Migration Advisory Committee under a shortage occupation list.
The capacity to retain EU workers in these sectors will depend on the effective functioning of the EU settlement scheme. Yet, many EU citizens in the UK have already made alternative choices: to go back home or leave the UK for another EU member state where they can still enjoy free movement. The most recent ONS data for the year ending September 2019 shows EU net migration falling sharply by 64,000 and the number of EU citizens arriving for work at its lowest since June 2016.
Some of the sectors with the most urgent and pressing needs for labour to respond to the coronavirus pandemic are those that have been those most affected by this ‘Brexodus’. In healthcare, where unfilled vacancies are at record levels, there have been sharp declines in the numbers of nurses and midwives registered from the EU over 2017 and 2018. In agricultural food picking, there have been widely reported labour shortages during the coronavirus crisis. The same sector has suffered large falls in numbers of EU migrant workers since the Brexit referendum.
Some jobs classified as essential in the COVID-19 crisis are already defined as having high skilled and/or of high social value in the government’s mapping of the ‘value’ of occupations under the proposed points-based system. This includes teaching professional and nurses, for example.
But many jobs are not seen as essential under this mapping. 55 per cent of EU migrants work in occupations that are categorised by the government as ‘low-skilled’ under the proposed migration regime, and thus would not be eligible for the skilled workers’ route to secure a work permit. Included here are many caring, construction transport, food processing and packaging jobs. This has already led to calls for a rethink of the points-based system. Just last week, Liz Kendall, the new shadow social care minister wrote to the Health Secretary, requesting a fast-track visa regime to be created for care workers.”
Conclusion: Towards a future social value of migrants
Will the COVID-19 crisis lead to a re-think by policy makers in their approach to post-Brexit migration regulation? Will perceptions of the value of particular occupations and migrant workers in the UK move beyond narrow economic modelling, salary threshold and shortage occupation criteria, and how might this be achieved?
The current crisis may offer a new terrain for migrant workers themselves to show their ‘value’, not only to the economy but for society at large and to bargain for better conditions, beyond statutory and employer-controlled salary thresholds.
It seems to us that in the field of migrant labour the pandemic opens up a number of opposing scenarios. On the one hand there are utilitarian and draconian approaches focused on state self- sufficiency and restrictions on movement of labour. On the other hand there may be approaches which better recognise the inevitable interconnectedness of our lives, mobilities, care and survival in a world that cannot travel back from globalisation.
This blog is based on an ongoing wider programme of research undertaken within CERIC on migration. If you would like to comment on the issues covered in this report, or be involved in future events around migration, please contact:
Dr Gabriella Alberti