LONDON — Not enough is being done to ensure the UK attracts and retains foreign workers after Brexit, and a step-change is needed in the way the government talks about foreign workers, according to a leading business lobbyist.
Speaking at a conference about foreign labour after Brexit on Wednesday last week, Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), said the government’s “best and brightest” rhetoric is unhelpful.
Businesses across the spectrum are experiencing labour shortages he said and it is likely to get worse.
Last month, Prime Minister Theresa May indicated in her Florence speech that free movement of people will almost certainly continue until beyond Brexit day during a transitional period, which is likely to expire in 2021 or 2022. She also reassured EU citizens currently living in the UK that her government wants to guarantee their right to remain.
But once a transitional period comes to an end, said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, UK businesses across sectors will be in for a “rude awakening” in terms of the fees they must pay to recruit foreign workers — which include the Immigration Skills Charge, visa charges and healthcare surcharges that are currently relevant to non-EU workers in the UK.
According to Marshall, about 40% of the BCC’s members — which total about 6 million employees — have indicated they have EU workers who say they are considering leaving the country. “Forty per cent is very high number,” he said.
In large part this is to do with Brexit uncertainty, he said, as well as a growing feeling among foreign workers that they are no longer welcome.
“Politicians in particular have created an environment where… uncertainty is possible, and that’s not correct,” he said.
“The plea that I get from rank and file businesses of whatever size and whatever sector is that the rhetoric that we hear from UK citizens and UK media on EU law needs to change.” The word ‘migrant’ “lands very badly,” he said. “They just see themselves as workers exercising their right to free movement.”
Marshall stressed the need to talking in real-world terms: “public opposition to migrants is very high, but public opposition to nurses is very low,” he said. “We need to moderate our tone.”
On what a deal might look like, and the extent to which businesses’ concerns are being listened to, Marshall was broadly positive. The leadership of the Home Office, he said, is “broadly responsive” to the issues being raised by businesses, both in terms of what a transitional period and final deal might look like.
Emphasising the power businesses have, Barnard said, “it’s not border control that controls borders, it’s employers.”
But the proof, Marshall stressed, will come with the final agreements, he said. “All we can do is advise.”
On uncertainty, Marshall said more clarity was needed wherever possible. But, he said, “we have a way in this country of shoe-horning the announcement first and providing the detail later. I’d rather they [the government] said nothing for longer, and then said something and backed it up.”