U.K. Tells Business to Train Britons in Brexit Migrant Clampdown

Updated on
  • May says cheap foreign labor keeps British workers’ wages low
  • Businesses attack measures to restrict migrant labor

Theresa May called on employers to train more British workers to fill vacancies after Brexit, after a leaked document suggested the U.K. is preparing to limit and discourage immigration from the European Union.

The prime minister said low-skilled immigration has hit the wages of British people and promised to control the numbers coming in after the country leaves the EU in 2019. May insisted Britain will welcome “the brightest and the best” from overseas, but her office made clear that businesses must ensure British workers benefit in future.

“There is a reason for wanting to ensure that we can control migration,” the premier told lawmakers in London on Wednesday. “It is because of the impact that net migration can have on people -- on access to services, on access to infrastructure -- but crucially it often hits those on the lower end of the income scale hardest. It’s important we bring in controls.”

May’s comments came after a draft government plan, leaked to The Guardian newspaper, set out measures to restrict immigration from the EU and prioritize British workers for jobs. Taken together, the plan and the premier’s remarks suggest May’s Tory government is determined to crack down on migration, despite failing to win a majority and a clear mandate in June’s election. 

May and many Euro-skeptic Tories believe last year’s referendum vote to quit the EU was driven by a desire to regain control over borders and immigration policy, and are convinced that failing to tighten the rules would invite a backlash from the public.

‘Strangle Our Economy’

The leaked document proposed that low-skilled migrants from the EU should be able to come to the U.K. for at most two years, with a limit of three to five years for those with more skills. Employers would be required to do more to recruit British workers. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, from the main opposition Labour Party, said on Twitter that the document was “a blueprint on how to strangle our economy.”

However, May’s office insisted businesses need to step up. “We want employers to do more to improve the skills of British workers and equip them with those skills, going forward,” the prime minister’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters.

The 82-page draft proposal isn’t a final plan but does show one strand of thinking about how British borders should be controlled. When May was home secretary, her department pushed hard to get net migration down to a Conservative target of 100,000 people a year. May recommitted herself to meeting this target on Wednesday but businesses are not convinced.

“It is clear the U.K. needs an immigration system which provides control while also enabling employers to access the foreign workers they need at all levels -- whether it be short-term seasonal workers, intra-company transfers or permanent positions,” Simon Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said in an email.

He objected to further burdens on employers: “Businesses are not the border agency. The Home Office is not ‘taking back control’ if it expects employers to do the immigration checks for them.”

Certainty Needed

The Confederation of British Industry said an open approach to the U.K.’s closest trading partners was “vital for business” as it would help address key skill and labor shortages at a time when unemployment is at a 40-year low. Businesses would look for an “open but managed” approach to immigration, said Neil Carberry, CBI managing director for people and infrastructure.

“That means taking the initiative to guarantee those already here that they can stay, a transition period with limited changes so firms can plan ahead, and a final system for the EU that is simpler and more open than the complex work-permit system run for non-EEA countries,” he said in a statement.

The proposals are unlikely to be well-received by the EU, which could further add to uncertainty for businesses and individuals, according to Caron Pope, a partner at law firm Fragomen. That’s frustrating companies, as they can’t make recruitment and staffing plans for U.K. businesses beyond March 2019, she said in an emailed statement.

The Food and Drink Federation, whose members often use migrant labor, was also hostile.

“Food and drink manufacturing, Britain’s largest manufacturing sector, will be alarmed,” Ian Wright, its director general, said in a statement. “If this does represent the government’s thinking, it shows a deep lack of understanding of the vital contribution that EU migrant workers make -- at all skill levels -- across the food chain.”

— With assistance by Cat Rutter Pooley

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