The new government says it wants Britain's businesses to be more outward looking and trade with the big wide world that exists beyond the EU. But woe betide anyone that has the audacity to employ an Indian programmer, a Nigerian accountant or a Syrian engineer.
Yesterday the home secretary, Amber Rudd, proposed plans to force companies to publish the proportion of their workforce that hails from overseas. It's the latest attempt to help the government to reach its pointless target of cutting net migration to the tens of thousands.
Previous reforms have included closing the ‘Tier 1’ visa routes for highly skilled migrants without a job offer and students finishing UK university courses and increasing the minimum salary non-EU workers need to exceed in order to qualify for a work permit (it will reach £30,000 next April). But this new idea is particularly insidious in its implication that employing migrant workers is something to be ashamed of.
Rudd says she wants to ‘ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.’ That ignores the fact that while net immigration is at a record high, unemployment is at its lowest rate in a decade, lower even than before the financial crisis. We’re told that post-Brexit we need to listen to the ‘legitimate concerns’ voters have about immigration. But there’s nothing to be legitimately concerned about. It’s telling that, barring extreme examples like Boston in Lincolnshire, it was areas with low levels of migration that overwhelmingly voted to leave.
As tends to be the case with these kinds of rules, it’s probably safe to assume this will apply only to large companies. So the unscrupulous East Anglian gangmasters will escape the attention but the big listed companies - those that build our homes, connect our broadband, pull our energy from beneath the sea and develop life-saving medicines - will be lambasted for hiring the best people for the job.
It turns the stomach to imagine a future where some employers are attacked by certain elements of the press for hiring ‘too many foreigners’. And the stats will have an inevitable regional skew as companies in big cities are portrayed as traitors to their country while rural firms are held up as patriotic champions of the British worker. One wonders if Britain were not an island, whether the government would take a leaf out of Donland Trump's book and build a massive wall.
To be fair it's reasonable to raise concerns about the tendency of some companies to hire from abroad, rather than investing in training. Employers already face having to pay a £1,000 per migrant, per year ‘skills charge’ starting next April. But the appropriate way to deal with that is to improve the education system and build greater ties between employers, schools and universities to ensure young people are ready for work. Not to make thinly-disguised attacks on migrant workers and those who employ them. It’s a bit rich of the government to pin all the blame on businesses when the education system is almost entirely within the state’s purview.
Businesses have shown they are more than willing to build closer ties with educators, as evidenced by the explosion in apprenticeships over the last five years. The CIPD says its research shows those businesses that employ the most migrants are also the ones that splash the cash on training. And cutting down the supply of super rich overseas students who have been helping British universities balance the books (as the government also intends to do) will hardly help improve the state of Britain's skills.
MT suggests that, should the policy make it onto the statute books, diverse businesses wear their stats like a badge of honour. A sign they're an open and tolerant company and a magnet for the brightest and best people - regardless of which patch of the earth they happen to have been born on.