New UK worker visa rules to close system to employers in key shortage areas


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The UK visa system will in effect be closed to employers seeking to fill jobs in some key shortage areas because new rules require them to pay overseas hires more than the “vast majority” of UK workers in the same occupation, according to the government’s migration advisers.

The warning by the Migration Advisory Committee comes as the main salary floor for skilled worker visas is set to rise from £26,200 to £38,700 from April — an increase that could price out many employers who currently use the system, even when hiring well-qualified staff.

It will also become much more expensive to use the visa system in areas where the Home Office allows employers to hire at a lower rate because UK workers are scarce with that threshold jumping from £20,960 to £30,960.

In its interim recommendations on the roles to be included on a new “immigration salary list” qualifying for this discount, published on Friday, MAC said that in many mid-skilled areas, even the lower rate would be “above the salaries paid for the vast majority of workers in that occupation”.

This will be true of roles recommended for inclusion on the list — including welders, bricklayers, workers in racing stables and health workers outside the NHS — and occupations that could be considered in a later review, such as veterinary nurses.  

There is a wider impact, however, because pay thresholds specific to each occupation, which employers must match if they are higher than the main rate, will also rise.

At present, they are set at the 25th percentile of the earnings distribution, with a further 20 per cent discount for “shortage” occupations. In future they will be set in line with median full-time earnings for the role, with the discount scrapped.

MAC chair Professor Brian Bell said the new salary thresholds would in practice close the system to most non-graduate jobs, underlining the need for ministers to clarify their aims.

“Is the objective of the new system to make sure you can never pay less than £31,000 outside health and care [where the government has set a lower threshold, of £23,200] . . . or does an occupation need to be on the list because it’s important and benefits the UK?” he asked.

The decision to set occupation-specific salary thresholds at the UK median also changed the nature of the system, Bell warned, because it meant there was no longer any real risk of migrants undercutting UK workers.

It would also make it hard for employers to hire migrants in more junior roles. This could apply to someone earning £40,000 to £50,000 who was contributing to the UK’s tax take, he added.

“What’s the logic? Why would you not want that worker to come into the UK?” he asked. “What’s the objective here?

MAC’s interim recommendations, which largely updated a previous list of shortage occupations, come ahead of a fuller review of the system expected later in the year.

The government said in a statement: “The salary criteria is designed to ensure resident workers’ wages cannot be undercut and ensures the skilled worker route is not used as a source of low-cost labour.”

It added that it had made clear when it commissioned MAC that “roles should also only be included where they will meaningfully benefit from the discount to the salary threshold, and where it is sensible to offer this discount to employers.”


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