The food and drink sector is up in arms over scheduled government reforms to Britain’s immigration system. Industry bodies and business owners have condemned Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plans to introduce a post-Brexit Australian-style points system after free movement between the UK and EU officially ends after 31st December 2020.
In a statement published on 18 February, the Home Office said the new system “will assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points … and will end the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country.” The Home Office also claims that the new immigration regime “will give top priority to those with the highest skills and the greatest talents, including scientists, engineers and academics.”
In a response to the government’s plans, the Policy Manager of industry representative organisation the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Mark Harrison drew attention to key issues caused by the legislation that could affect businesses throughout the sector.
“The food and drink industry is reliant on workers at all skill levels” he said, “We have concerns about access to those potential employees who won’t qualify through these ‘skilled’ routes such as bakery assistants, meat processors, and workers essential to the production of huge array of basic foodstuffs such as cheese, pasta, and sausages. While we are committed to promoting the use of automation and technology in our sector, the benefits of such innovations will not be felt overnight and some food chain roles remain challenging to automate. With the UK experiencing historically low unemployment rates and high vacancy levels, we believe a route for entry-level workers should be introduced which retains control of immigration while also supporting business needs, incentivising upskilling, and boosting productivity.”
Prior to this statement, the FDF’s CEO Ian Wright denounced Priti Patel’s plans as “ludicrous” and a “terrible, terrible mistake”.
Restaurant owners have also spoken out over the controversial reforms. The co-owners of popular Shoreditch-based fine-dining Turkish restaurant Oklava, Selin Kiazim and Laura Christie have started a campaign to amend the proposed system.
“We started our campaign about one week ago” Ms Kiazim told BritShish on 29 February. “I say ‘campaign’, but we actually just posted a picture and short caption on Instagram in response to the government’s proposed points-based visa system and we were overwhelmed by the support in the hospitality community. Because of this wave of support, we decided to take it further and start a petition to ask Priti Patel and her government to revoke 1) the categorisation of hospitality work as ‘low-skilled’ and 2) the points-based system which would see a steep decline in migration of hospitality workers from around the globe to the UK (as they would not qualify for entry under the government’s new system).”
The chef and businesswoman also explained that Oklava is trying to change the Home Office’s perception of hospitality workers as ‘low’ or ‘unskilled.’ “We have written a letter to Ms Patel in the Evening Standard, asking her to come have dinner at our restaurant, Oklava. We would love for her to come visit, and see for herself the kind of skills our supposed ‘low-skilled’ staff have up our sleeves. We value our staff, their diversity, and their commitment to their jobs; we would like her to be able to experience the kind of service they offer, and would ask her to remove the ‘low-skilled’ label they would be given in the new visa system and make it possible for them and other (future) staff members to migrate to the UK for hospitality work. The industry’s diversity is its lifeblood; under the new visa system, we stand to lose the hospitality industry as we know it” she said.
When asked what she thought the worst consequences for the food and drink sector, including the Kebab Industry, could be if the new immigration regime comes into effect she also told BritShish that “for UK restaurants at large the new visa system will mean there will be no new migrants who will qualify to work in the UK hospitality industry (once the system comes into effect). This is disastrous, as a large proportion of the hospitality industry in the UK is currently staffed and run by highly skilled employees with a non-UK background. The current staffing crisis (not enough applicants and a lot of job vacancies) will worsen. Under the new system, 19 out of 34 of our current staff would not have qualified to work in the UK; if the new system does come into effect, we foresee significant problems in filling our vacancies and running our business.”
According to Ms Kiazim if restaurant and other hospitality business owners want to support her campaign, “Signing the petition is a great start, and sharing the petition amongst followers on Instagram and customers and staff would really help. We are thinking about the next step, and will keep everyone up to date on the latest developments.”
The government has said that the new system will deliver on the result of the 2016 Brexit Referendum and “end free movement, reassert control of our borders and restore public trust.”