Is hospitality about to be legislated out of existence?

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

19 December 2018

Sajid Javid’s new immigration plans might go some way to taking back control of the UK’s borders, but they have gone down like a cold plate of sprouts with the hospitality industry.

The UK’s bar, pub and restaurant workers lined up to condemn the Home Secretary’s proposals, calling them ‘shocking’ and ‘terrible news’ and accusing the government of being ‘out of touch with reality’.

Trumpeted as the ‘biggest shake up in 40 years’, Javid’s white paper on immigration is intended to bring back the number of people coming into the country to ‘sustainable’ levels.

Immigration is currently over a quarter of a million a year and the government is known to be keen to reduce this to tens of thousands.

But in an industry already struggling to recruit staff, many fear that the process of ‘taking back control of the UK’s borders’ could leave bars, restaurants, pubs and hotels unstaffed as the tougher terms mean applications simply dry up.

Under the new proposals, EU nationals will no longer have the automatic right to work in the UK, and graduates will have six months to find a job once their course ends.

‘Skilled’ workers with degrees and A-levels will be prioritised over those without. There will be no cap on these skilled workers, wherever they come from; provided they have a job offer they will be able to obtain five-year working visas.

Controversially, the government is considering a salary cut-off of £30K a year below which migrants will only be able to obtain one-year visas.

This would heavily impact the on-trade.

‘It’s hard to see how this won’t decimate the hospitality industry,' commented Nate Brown of London Bar Consultants. 'Bars already see staffing and recruitment as the most challenging restrictions on operations, and to remove such a large percentage of the workforce will be crippling to many businesses.’

To ensure that industries relying on low-skilled EU workers don’t simply collapse, the government is introducing a transition period during which nationals of ‘low risk countries’ (ie the EU) can continue to work here – albeit with conditions attached.

Under the transition scheme, which will be reviewed in 2025, less-qualified migrants could work for a year, but would then need to leave the UK for 12 months before coming back.

‘The central plank of Government's immigration policy, to cut off lower-skilled migration with a salary threshold, is fundamentally flawed and will damage the hospitality sector and the wider UK economy,’ said Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UKHospitality.

Javid described the proposals as ‘a new system that works in the interest of the British people’.

But his proposals have received short shrift from the on-trade, which reacted with a combination of exasperation, cynicism and disbelief.

‘Very few Brits are willing to work in the hospitality industry, and even fewer are talented enough,’ said Olivier Gasselin from Hakkasan. ‘Bartenders are a rarity, so are sommeliers. But the big struggle is for waiting staff, kitchen porters and chefs – and it seems it will get worse.’

‘This [immigration bill] is terrible news,’ added consultant sommelier Lionel Periner. ‘We are struggling to find staff, wherever they come from. If the government start to ignore that, where are we going? The situation looks a bit impossible.’

Research revealed today by software provider Fourth showed the extent to which the UK hospitality industry relies on foreign workers. Over half of all those employed in the profession (52%) come from abroad, with the situation particularly acute in restaurants.

According to Fourth, almost three-quarters (74%) of restaurant workers come from outside the UK, with the vast majority of them earning below the £30K cut-off at which it would be possible to secure long-term work visas.

‘The government are out of touch with reality,’ said Giuseppe Longobardi from the Cross at Kenilworth. ‘We have over 50 front of house staff [in our group]; three of them earn over £30K. We have only three English people, and two of them are part time.’

The immigration white paper comes on top of an already difficult couple of years for the hospitality industry. Jonathon Swaine, managing director of Fullers Inns, told Imbibe that they have seen fewer EU job applicants since the Brexit vote in 2016.

‘We’ve [also] seen large numbers of team members deciding to go back to their parent countries. ‘We’ve been living with that uncertainty for two years,’ he said.

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