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Exploring the job security of sponsored workers in the UK

By Gary McIndoe, Managing Partner at Latitude Law

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In early December, the government announced significant changes to the way organisations can sponsor the employment of overseas staff.

The stated aim of these changes – which we expect in around April 2024 – is to “cut net migration and curb abuse of the immigration system”.

These new rules are essentially a knee-jerk reaction to net migration figures for the year to June 2023, which were recently revised upwards by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to around 750,000, largely driven by the increase in visas for workers in the health and social care sectors.

Perhaps surprisingly, the headline measure – an increase in the baseline salary threshold for sponsored workers from £26,200 to £38,700 – will not affect such staff, as a salary exemption will remain in place.

The government is therefore recognising that acute staffing shortages exist in the sector.

Where certain health and care workers will suffer, however, is with their ability to relocate to the UK with family members.

Care and senior care workers will, from next spring, be prevented from bringing partners and children along with them. Medical staff are unaffected by this restriction.

These measures provide a snapshot of the environment in which employers and their overseas staff must operate.

They demonstrate the uncertainty that exists when the government can move the goalposts significantly in response to what it perceives as unwanted political outcomes.

Immigration rules are amended via parliament’s negative resolution procedure, which means major changes can pass without meaningful scrutiny or debate.

The UK’s current sponsored worker rules have been around in their present form for many years.

Roles are mapped into ONS Standard Occupation Classification Codes, and staff may be recruited if they meet specified skill levels, salary, English ability and financial requirements.

In 2020, the need for employers to demonstrate resident labour market testing was abolished, so now all that needs to be shown is a genuine vacancy.

The use of skilled worker visas in the health sector has always been relatively high; conversely, the social care sector has only recently been able to make widespread use of these visas, when relevant roles were added to the Shortage Occupation List.

This move was largely viewed as a necessary response to the UK’s departure from the EU, and the huge decrease in staff moving from Europe.

It is this increase in social care sponsorship that has, perhaps, led us to where we are today.

High migration figures are unpalatable to a large swathe of the Conservative Party, so the reaction of the government is unsurprising.

At the time of writing, we do not know exactly how the new rules will be framed; will changes affect workers already in the UK for example?

Rules do not normally have retrospective effect, but when these staff come to extend their visas or apply for settlement after five years of sponsorship, will they be hit by new requirements?

Sponsored workers are of course tied to their employer, and so their job security depends on continued support from their sponsor.

There has been reporting of abuses of the system by less scrupulous employers.

The Guardian in September 2023 told the story of Anthony Mbare, a Ugandan care worker who paid a £2,500 “administration fee” to a domiciliary care agency that then failed to provide him with stated hours, and required him to fund the road tax on the company vehicle he was using.

The extension of skilled worker options to such employers has, to the writer’s knowledge, led to similar stories of abuse in the private care sector.

While it is open to someone to take another job with a reputable agency or care home, sometimes it is not easy to find such an alternative, forcing many like Mr Mbare to return home.

Facing such conditions at work without the support of family members – as will be the case from next April – will be even more difficult.

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