As I See It

Why we need to embrace immigrant workers

Terry smiling headWell, at least firms won’t have to publish a list of their foreign workers. That idea has been put to bed, either because it was never the plan in the first place, or because the UK government has been told it sucked.

If Home Secretary Amber Rudd and her acolytes were just clearing up a misunderstanding then why has it taken them a week to do so?

The Tory conference was a bit of a tawdry affair, a reminder of why so many people regard it as the nasty party: a lot of talk about equality laced with policies aimed at division.

Immigration is the hot topic. It was always going to be the deciding factor in the EU referendum and remains the biggest issue for the government to resolve. Sadly, the Tories are making matters worse.

Access to the single market will not be achieved without the UK accepting the free movement of labour. Refusal to comply – the hard Brexit option – not only keeps us out of this key market, it has left ministers to come up with unseemly alternatives: such as the ‘foreigners list’.

It’s true, as defence secretary Michael Fallon states, that there is already a requirement to ensure that overseas workers are being employed only because British workers are not available. Making doubly sure that this is not a ‘box ticking’ exercise is laudable enough.

But talk of a ‘name and shame’ policy to embarrass companies who fail to meet new criteria is edging towards xenophobia.

Aside from the human rights elements in this debate, there is a serious matter of skills shortages that some at the top of government just do not get.

Last week we reported from the ScotSoft conference on how Scotland can only fill half the 11,000 jobs digital vacancies it creates every year – and that’s before we start closing the borders to overseas workers. When the controls come in it will make matters worse.

Our interview with IT headhunter Huw Martin, who sits on various digital economy panels, reveals worrying aspects of this policy looking further out.

Denying firms access to skilled overseas workers will likely force up wages of those here who will get to pick and choose their employer, he says. In turn that could force companies to reverse the recent onshoring of jobs by once again outsourcing to lower wage economies.

Immigration is a valid concern for those who feel they’re losing out to ‘foreigners’, though in truth these incomers fill vital jobs from health care to retail and are taking up many menial jobs that British workers don’t want.

At the other end of the scale, we are simply not producing enough to- end engineers, coders and analysts in the growing digital economy. Efforts are under way to fix this problem in schools and colleges. But ScotSoft delegates heard last week how the problem is just not going away and that all those trying to resolve it are facing a long game.

Britain needs a mature and responsible approach to immigration. It may require some form of points system, some assurance that immigrants have a job to go to when they arrive. This may be the only way to find a compromise.

Whatever solution is worked out, it cannot be based on knee-jerk statements from government ministers pandering to the ignorant.


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