LONDON – The British government announced Wednesday its plan for a complete overhaul of its immigration system – closing its borders to unskilled migrants and instead allowing easier entry for “the brightest and the best from around the world.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel called the immigration policy “a historic moment for the whole country,” as the government pledged to transform the British economy by starving its businesses of low-wage workers from Europe and forcing companies to adopt technology and automation instead.
The government said that beginning next year, it will reduce the overall number of migrants allowed into the country, honoring what it sees as one of the main mandates of the Brexit vote in June 2016.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the campaign for Brexit, has called the new immigration regime revolutionary. His government formally outlined the new plan Wednesday, confirming that Britain will install a new “points-based” system, which will take back control of its borders and end what it described as the country’s overreliance on low-skilled workers.
These are workers, many from Eastern Europe, who today enter freely into Britain to toil in low-wage, labor-intensive sectors such as food processing, hospitality, construction, kitchen work and caring for the elderly. They do jobs such as picking strawberries in Sussex and cleaning hotel rooms in Soho that many native-born Brits won’t do for the wages paid.
In remarks Wednesday to the BBC, Patel imagined that British businesses might somehow lure the 8.45 million “economically inactive” British-born adults, ages 16 to 64, to take the place of low-skilled foreigners who will be denied entry.
“We want businesses to invest in them,” she said of the nonworking native-born. “To invest in skilling them up, training them.”
The government vowed to give its top priority to migrants “with greatest talents,” such as “scientists, engineers, academics and other highly-skilled workers.”
Those wanting a work visa must demonstrate that they speak English and have a job offer from a known employer with a guaranteed minimum salary of $33,200.
As the Guardian put it: “Self-employed people need not apply – spelling the end of Polish plumbers or Romanian builders coming on their own initiative.”
The Telegraph newspaper wrote, “Huddled masses need not apply.”
In several British cities, many of the workers renovating homes, driving trucks and cutting up poultry are European migrants – not scientists – many without fluency in English.
Britain’s Home Office said the new plan was designed to eliminate “the distortion” caused by “the freedom of movement,” one of the four cherished pillars for members of the European Union, which allows citizens to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc.
Britain officially left the European Union last month and is in a “transition phase” until the year’s end, while the two sides negotiate their future relationship and attempt to craft a trade deal.
Johnson will introduce legislation next month to begin its new immigration system in January. For travelers coming to Britain, from the United States and elsewhere, for short business trips or tourism, little will change.
Some British businesses that rely on low-wage imported labor are calling the new policy a crisis in the making. A union that represents low-skilled employees said it was a disaster.
The government has shrugged.
“Employers will need to adjust,” the Home Office stated bluntly. “We intend to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy.”
“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labor from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation,” the Home Office announced.
As for employers clamoring for workers, Johnson’s government advised there were at least 3.2 million E.U. citizens living in the United Kingdom who will be able to stay and work in post-Brexit Britain. “This will provide employers with flexibility to meet labor market demands,” the government avowed.
No longer will citizens from the European Union be given any advantage over migrants from other continents applying to live and work in Britain. The new system is designed to give a software designer from Nepal an edge over a bartender from France.
It might also make it easier for Americans to migrate to Britain – if they get a job offer.
“Of all the things we have seen as a result of Brexit so far, it’s hard to see anything more significant than this as a policy decision,” said Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. “This is the British government turning away from Europe and toward other parts of the world.”
He said for those outside of the European Union, the changes were a “liberalization,” with Americans and others needing to meet lower salary and educational thresholds to work in Britain.
“The government is saying, ‘it’s going to be difficult, and some industries are going to adapt.’ They are talking a lot about automation. But it’s not clear how you do things like automate a nursing home,” he said.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, tweeted that the policy was “offensive.” “It labels vital workers, making a big contribution as ‘low skilled’ & slams the door in their faces. And it is disastrous in practice – it will badly damage our economy.”
Last month, Sturgeon called for powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament so that they could introduce their own “Scottish visa” to respond to local needs and an aging population. Her plans were rejected by the British government.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that businesses will welcome some of the proposals issued Wednesday, such as abolishing the cap on the number of skilled visas, and allowing foreign students who attend a British university to work in the U.K. for two years after graduation.
“Nonetheless,” she said, “in some sectors, firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses.”
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of business association UK Hospitality, said that “ruling out a temporary, low-skilled route for migration” will be “disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people.”
Demographic changes mean that there are 200,000 fewer 18- to 24-year-old Britons entering the workforce today than a decade ago. “We are facing record low levels of unemployment, a dip in young people entering the labor market and have the highest vacancy levels of any sector,” Nicholls said.
She said that a quarter of the hospitality workforce across the U.K. are foreign nationals – in cities such as London, the figure rises to 80 percent.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said that British farmers “remain very concerned about how they will recruit vitally important seasonal workers.”
British farms are hugely reliant on migrant labor, she said, with over 99 percent of the fruit and vegetable pickers coming from the European Union, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria.
Patrick McGovern, a migration expert at the London School of Economics, called the policy “a massive labor market experiment.”
“It’s the first time any of the major world economies has completely closed the door on low-skilled migration,” he said, comparing the top-down retooling of the economy to “a kind of Soviet-central planning.”
In the post-war years, Britain relied on migration from Ireland and the Commonwealth countries, which is no longer available in the same way. And then it relied on migration from the European Union.
It’s such a fundamental change to the labor supply that McGovern wondered if the policy will be sustained over the long-term. “It may be that as reactions kick in and shortages become evident and businesses complain that there is a gradual opening before next general election or sometimes afterward,” he said.