As London navigates a second wave of coronavirus and the deadline for the freedom of movement end draws closer, Diana takes a look at what a changing immigration system might mean for the city.
Just a few weeks before lockdown in March, the government announced its new points-based immigration system. Through this system EU citizens wanting to live and work in the UK will be assessed for visas in the same way as those outside of the EU, and different criteria such as a job offer, salary, education and skills level will give them a certain number of points. Under this new system the lower salary limit will be £25,000. When it was announced, many people were concerned about how this particular change might affect certain sectors such as healthcare and care, where some salaries are lower than the new minimum.
Since the start of lockdown, workers in many of the sectors that would be affected by the new immigration system have proven to be essential. Throughout the crisis carers, refuse collectors, supermarket staff, postal workers and paramedics – to mention a few – have continued working without interruption, to save lives but also to keep our communities running. These essential workers often cannot work from home, and as the rest of us have been adapting to the new normal, we have relied on them more than ever. We created more rubbish for them to collect, have had to grocery shop more than ever to eat at home, ordered items online and relied on the NHS as the frontline defence to coronavirus.
As lockdown has slowly lifted, with some places still having to reapply tighter restrictions depending on case surges, the government has turned to getting Brexit ‘done’ again, with the new immigration points system back on the agenda too.
The Home Office line is that from 1 January 2021, free movement from the EU to the UK will end and the points system will be in place for all immigrants who want to come and work in the UK. Besides the salary threshold, speaking English and having an offer from an A-level or equivalent skilled job (preferably from a job in a shortage occupation) are going to award the main bulk of points for new immigrants.
The view from London
In London, 16 per cent of people in employment are EU nationals, many of who work in health and social care, transportation, construction, retail and hospitality; all deemed essential to keep our city running. The pandemic has demonstrated that we should be valuing these professions. However, the EU immigrants who form a significant part of London’s essential workforce are often overlooked. Clapping once a week and leaving kind notes are great gestures of appreciation, but valuing their skills and creating a space for them through immigration policy are more lasting ways of showing appreciation, as well as helping to avoid skills shortages in essential sectors in the future.
The government is hoping to use the introduction of the new points system to pressure employers to invest in and improve pay levels for UK workers. The assumption is that when immigration is limited, there will be enough British citizens, as well as settled EU workers and young people on short term visas to fill vacancies for, what have previously been called, ‘low-skilled jobs’. However, during lockdown we saw that the supply of people already living in the UK who were prepared to go into these types of jobs didn’t match demand.
Back in April, the UK’s agricultural sector was facing the concerning challenge of not being able to count on seasonal food pickers; potentially leaving a large quantity of produce to rot. A recruitment drive was launched for food pickers and there was an 83 per cent rise in applications. But even though two thirds of the roles were filled by UK applicants, the remaining third still needed to be filled by Romanian farm workers, who were chartered into the country by produce growers. Foreign pickers were crucial, both because of their experience with food safety and protocol, as well as being needed to train the newly hired British pickers. It shows both how reliant we are on immigrant workers, as well as that ‘low-skilled’, but essential, jobs can require quite specific skills, which some UK workers currently lack.
Elsewhere, the healthcare sector is particularly affected by the salary criteria in the new system. Paramedics, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and radiographers often have a starting salary below £25,000. Immigrant workers make up around 21 per cent of London’s healthcare sector and have been on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, risking their lives every day to save people including our own prime minister. There are plans for a fast-track visa service for shortage occupations in healthcare, with a lower salary threshold of around £20,000. However, for other sectors, the idea of working with a costly visa might discourage people who are unable to get sponsorship from coming to work in the UK altogether.
The UK might have found itself at the verge of food shortages without immigrant seasonal food pickers. And if it wasn’t for immigrant healthcare workers, the NHS may have been at risk of collapse at the peak of the pandemic. Can London afford to restrict the movement of these essential workers?
The government recently announced that the care sector will be added to the shortage occupations list, and advisers warned that salaries should increase to attract UK nationals to these roles before the end of the year. This goes to show that the realities of a points system being introduced are much more nuanced than initially thought. How prepared are we really to make this system work? If we wake up on 1 January 2021 to a chaotic immigration system, it could raise serious concerns from other countries on our ability to handle these changes. Is London, as a global city, ready to face these risks?
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first crisis London has faced, and it will not be the last. As lockdown eases and we continue to navigate the changes to our city, we must keep in mind and protect what we value and who we turned to in times of crisis. Only this way can we fully prepare for the longer-term effects this pandemic will have on London and stay prepared for future crises our city will likely have to face.
Diana Szteinberg is Senior Events Officer at Centre for London.