UK government proposal to prioritize British workers sparks reactions from employer organizations

There has been a strong reaction from employer organizations to the UK government’s recent proposal to make firms prioritize British over immigrant workers.

In a speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, UK home secretary Amber Rudd reaffirmed the government’s commitment to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

Referring to the “clear message” the British people sent in the June referendum that voted to leave the EU, Rudd said:

“There can be no question that recent levels of immigration motivated a large part of the vote.”

Amber RuddThe home secretary says there is a need to re-examine whether the UK’s immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers. Image:

The government will be “looking across work and study routes” in consulting about the next steps to control immigration, says Rudd.

One step they are considering is whether to “tighten the test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad.”

Such a test “should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do,” said Rudd.

Under the current system, firms have to advertise job vacancies locally for at least 28 days before they can hire workers from overseas.

But Rudd says the current test is more of a “tick box exercise” that allows “some firms to get away with not training local people.”

She wants the government “to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.”

Reaction from employer organizations

There has been a strong reaction from employer organizations to the proposal to prioritize British workers, and the idea that it could involve firms having to publish numbers of foreign workers among their staff.

Josh Hardie, Deputy Director-General of the CBI says the government needs to be “clear about the value of migration to the UK, as well as its challenges,” and that firms “will not welcome further restrictions on high skilled migration from key trading partners around the world.” He says “business does not see immigration and training as an either/or choice. We need both.”

Responding to the idea that firms should report numbers of non-UK national workers they employ, Hardie, formerly Group Director for Corporate Responsibility at Tesco, warns that government “should be working in close partnership with business to create a system that works, rather than layering on more bureaucracy at a time where the country needs to be open for business.”

Similar comments were also made by the CIPD, the professional association for human resource management professionals. Their chief executive, Peter Cheese, describes the idea that firms should report numbers of foreign employees as “divisive and demonizing.” He says it sends out the wrong message about tackling skills shortages and warns:

“At a time of increased tension and uncertainty around migrant labour, the government needs to be sending positive messages about the contribution that migrant workers make to the economy.”

Survey suggests public opinion is with the government

However, a survey taken following Rudd’s speech would suggest public opinion is more in line with the government’s view than with the employer organizations.

The YouGov survey found that overall, 59 percent of people said they either strongly or somewhat support the proposal that firms should publish the number of foreign workers they employ – more than double the 26 percent who somewhat or strongly oppose the idea.

YouGov also asked people whether firms should prioritize British workers. When asked if a firm should employ a British candidate over a non-British one if both were equally good for the role, 60 percent of respondents said the British one should be hired, whereas only 30 percent said the British candidate should not be given priority.

Legal implications

A legal expert told the CIPD that should the government’s proposals be enacted, employers could end up being accused of discriminatory conduct.

Chris Brazier, senior associate, employment at BP Collins, says under the Equality Act 2010, non-British workers could sue employers if they end up being treated unfavourably, or suffered discrimination or **harassment because of their nationality.

** Harassment is unwelcome conduct or behavior that humiliates, scares, degrades, or intimidates the recipient.

Also, favouring British workers could result in the perception that they got their jobs not because they were the best candidates, but because of their nationality. This would “undoubtedly have an impact on workforce harmonization,” says Brazier.

Since making the announcement, Rudd has said the proposal is not a definite policy but an idea to consider – “to see if we can use it as a way of nudging people to do better behaviour.”

She said it was just one of the tools they are looking at and that government want to work with businesses to build a more skilled local labour force.