UK Migration Advisory Committee Recommends Overhaul of Shortage Occupation List Amid Exploitation Concerns

The UK government’s migration advisers have recommended the elimination of a key pathway for employers to recruit overseas workers in industries struggling with severe staff shortages. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), responsible for reviewing the “shortage occupation list” (SOL), which relaxes visa conditions, stated that the current system could lead to lower wages and exploitation of workers. The committee expressed doubts about its overall economic benefits and highlighted the financial burden on employers due to the high fees associated with the system.

According to Brian Bell, a professor of economics at King’s Business School and MAC chair, “We are not convinced that the SOL is an effective tool to address labour shortages across different occupations and sectors.” If implemented, these recommendations would disappoint business organisations that have advocated for expanding the SOL, especially in sectors like hospitality, which have faced challenges in hiring post-Brexit.

Simultaneously, some Conservative Members of Parliament, including immigration minister Robert Jenrick, have called for a reevaluation of the post-Brexit visa system. They particularly questioned the decision to include care workers on the shortage occupation list in early 2022. Being on the SOL allows employers to hire non-UK workers for 80% of the UK’s standard rate for the occupation, with a minimum of £20,960 annually, as opposed to the £26,200 threshold under the primary “skilled worker” visa route. Care workers were exempted from the usual skill criteria.

This change led to a significant surge in overseas hiring by the care sector, contributing to a peak in net migration. However, it also led to reports of abuse, with employers underpaying care workers or imposing inflated “relocation costs” if they attempted to switch jobs due to poor working and living conditions.

The MAC’s review emphasised the principle that employers should no longer be permitted to pay wages below the UK standard. Consequently, it was deemed unnecessary to keep higher-paid occupations like architects or IT technicians on the shortage list, as employers willing to match UK pay rates could already use the main skilled worker route. Additionally, nurses and other NHS workers were already on a national pay scale.

Therefore, the shortage occupation list would only be relevant to employers in low-wage sectors, where workers were at a notably high risk of exploitation, according to the MAC’s assessment.

Creating a system where migrants relied on their visa sponsors to stay in the country increased the risk of exploitation, according to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). The committee emphasised that this consequence was inevitable, given such a decision. Despite concerns about exploitation, the MAC recommended that care workers should remain on the shortage list because employers had no practical alternative for overseas hiring due to limited government funding for competitive wages.

However, the MAC found insufficient evidence to justify including most other low-wage roles on the shortage list. It suggested that expanding youth mobility schemes would be a more suitable option for sectors like hospitality. Employers could also consider hiring migrants who arrived through other routes, such as students or family members, according to Bell. The MAC urged the government to adopt a broader approach in sectors facing severe labour market challenges, focusing on training, wages, working conditions, and immigration rules.

If the government decided to maintain a shortage occupation list, the MAC recommended a streamlined list comprising only eight occupations, including bricklayers, roofers, retrofitters, laboratory and pharmaceutical technicians, and specific roles in the racing industry. A Scotland-only list would include fishing boat masters and ship builders.

Jamie Cater, senior policy manager at the manufacturers’ group Make UK, expressed concern about the removal of roles like welders and the omission of others such as sheet metal workers. He acknowledged that while overseas hiring wasn’t a long-term solution to shortages, the shortage occupation list provided an effective means to alleviate some challenges.

The government has been approached for comment. Home Office ministers indicated their support for the MAC’s premise that employers should pay at least the going rate at the beginning of the review. However, they have not confirmed whether they will accept the committee’s recommendations.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *