The food and drink sector faces several challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled workers, especially from overseas. Whilst often cited individually, the following issues have fed into one another to produce what is increasingly being seen as a leading issue for the sector.
Challenges within the UK food and drink sector
These challenges include:
- Brexit Impact: The conclusion of free movement for EU citizens post-Brexit has reduced the available workforce and increased the administrative and financial costs of hiring them.
- Points-Based Immigration System: The implementation of this system requires employers to sponsor overseas workers under the Skilled Worker route or other routes such as via agents using the Seasonal Worker Scheme.
- Rising Energy Costs: Escalating energy prices have increased production and supply costs for food and drink businesses, putting pressure on profit margins and wage competitiveness.
- Ongoing COVID-19 Effects: The pandemic disrupted supply chains, affected consumer demand, and led to many individuals leaving the UK during the height of the pandemic.
There have been repeated calls that the Government should adapt the points-based system to accommodate greater flexibility with respects to the jobs in the food and drink sector that can be recruited for, the costs and other requirements. The Migration Advisory Committee (‘MAC’) – an independent body set up to advise the Government on migration issues – this year produced an interim review of the shortages being experienced in the hospitality sector.
Largely, the MAC found insufficient evidence to support adapting the points-based system and suggested that shortages were not based on a shortage in the domestic employment market but more on the low pay and employment conditions. However, the committee has invited further evidence as part of a wider review, the results of which are due later this year.
The Government has introduced measures to help support those working in certain parts of the sector – most notably fishing. This has largely been through creating flexibility within the Skilled Worker route by adding certain positions to the shortage occupation list.
What is the Skilled Worker route?
The Skilled Worker route is the main immigration route for overseas nationals who wish to work in the UK (including in UK waters) in a specific job. It allows UK-based employers to recruit overseas workers to fill a wide range of skilled vacancies in the UK.
Sponsoring overseas workers
To sponsor a worker under this route, employers need to meet certain requirements, such as:
- Valid Sponsor Licence: Obtaining a sponsor licence from the Home Office, which involves applying online, paying a fee, and demonstrating that they have a genuine need for workers and can comply with their sponsor duties. The current costs for a business with a turnover of less than £10.2 million and assets worth £5.1 million or less (‘small business’) are £536.
- Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS): Acquiring a CoS for each sponsored worker, priced at £199. This involved assigning a CoS, paying an immigration skills charge (£364 per year for small businesses), and ensuring each worker meets the eligibility criteria.
- Eligible Skilled Occupation: Ensuring workers have a job offer in an eligible skilled occupation from table 1 or 2 of the list of occupation codes, which are aligned with the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. For those working in the food and drink sector, they may be surprised to see certain roles on the list such as chefs, catering and bar managers, farmers and nurserymen.
- Salary Threshold: Ensuring that workers meet the minimum salary threshold for their occupation code, which is based on a percentage of the going rate for that occupation or £26,200 per year (whichever is higher), unless they qualify for one of the tradeable points options.
- English Language Proficiency: Ensuring each worker has a level of B1 in reading, writing, speaking and listening, unless they are exempt from this requirement.
- Health Surcharges: The cost to the employee for a three-year visa is typically around £2600 including health surcharges, and this is due to increase to approximately £3900 by the end of 2023.
Certain roles which feature on the list of occupations are deemed to be in shortage and are placed on a shortage occupation list. This attracts reduced visa fees and a reduction in the salary threshold. There are also exemptions based on nationality and disability and those with equivalent degree qualifications can also meet the requirement.
There are ongoing responsibilities that sponsors must comply with. This can include making sure to report changes in circumstances to the Home Office and good recording keeping. Failing in these duties can have significant ramifications for a business but careful planning and management of processes can lead to successful and efficient compliance.
Navigating Challenges and Reaping Benefits
The Skilled Worker route offers many advantages for employers who want to access a global talent pool and fill skills gaps in their workforce. There is existing flexibility within the requirements and the costs for many are increasingly becoming something to adapt around, for example by way of contracting recovery of certain visa costs back from the employee. However, it also poses many challenges and risks for employers who need to navigate a complex and changing immigration system. Employers who want to sponsor overseas workers under this route need to be well-informed, well-prepared, and well-supported by professional advisers.
In conclusion, sponsoring overseas workers in the food and drink sector requires an approach that balances challenges with opportunities. Through careful planning and expert guidance, employers can navigate these complexities and secure the skilled talent their businesses require.
If you have any further enquiries regarding sponsoring overseas workers in the food and drink sector please feel free to contact our Immigration Team and we would be more than happy to help.