What do the latest immigration rules mean for UK retail?

Earlier this month, the government announced a number of changes to the Immigration Rules in the UK. While there have been many changes over the last few years, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) believes the latest update could signal a significant shift in the amount of retail workers coming to the UK.

The latest change shows a softening of the immigration rules for non-EU citizens. With doctors and nurses removed from the Tier 2 cap (which has an annual limit on the number of skilled workers employers can sponsor to work in the UK), it is estimated that nearly a third of the 20,700 visas will be freed up for other skills that BRC says businesses across the economy, including retail, are in critical need of.

“What does this tell us about the government’s position on immigration policy? Firstly, it reveals change. Pressure to increase the cap, or even ditch the net migration target, was piled on Theresa May when the cap was hit for the first time in 2015 and again on her successor Amber Rudd in 2017,” said Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns, Employement and Skills Policy Advisor – BRC.

“Despite Rudd’s attempts to shift the tone on immigration policy, she was unable to convince the May in the way that Sajid Javid has done in just 7 weeks. Secondly, it is a relaxing of the UK’s stance on immigration from outside the EEA. The changes to Tier 2 will effectively allow a greater number of skilled workers come to the UK and fill critical skills gaps.

“In the context of Brexit, this can be read in two ways. The first, as a move towards a new global Britain, open to the brightest and best beyond the EU. The second, that the government is finally listening to employers’ concerns about skills shortages and the need for overseas labour. If it’s the latter our spirits should be lifted about the potential for a demand-led immigration system once the UK leaves the EU.”

There is no denying that the EU play a key role in the retail industry. There are currently 170,000 people employed in retail work across the industry. The BRC warns that the government must make sure a system is in place post-Brexit to keep the UK retail cogs well oiled.

“In September, the Migration Advisory Committee is due to publish a report advising the government on how the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy – i.e. how the system can support the productivity and earning power of people across the UK. Maintaining access to labour and skills for the retail industry, the largest private sector employer, and its supply chains must sit at the heart of this,” said Horrocks-Burns.

“So, while the changes to the immigration system for non-EEA nationals are welcome, the government must turn their attention to the system post EU-exit and work with industries such as retail to create a demand-led system that has public support rather than set arbitrary targets and caps.”

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