Migrants' Rights Network

Low-skilled, high-skilled: actually migrant workers are usually overly-skilled

A week of reports, ‘leaked documents’ and more to-ing and fro-ing between the political parties, and between the UK and Brussels. In the middle of it all, are the migrant workers being described in whatever way possible, and conditions of their stay being dispassionately decided without so much as a thought to ask them whether the UK will be an attractive place to work in the future.


Leaks and Drains

The government’s leaked document finally showed us their thinking on a future and transitional immigration system. While they have been ‘keeping mum’ about their future intentions, what we read and heard in the leaked document wasn’t surprising. It was as most of us in the migrant and refugee sector had come to expect- limitations on who and how many would be let into the country, and their obsession with skill levels.

It is the government’s fixation on the net migration target, and the highly-skilled dictating which kinds of migrants they want, and they are a select few. They want to drain the talent pool of other nations to serve their needs, and economy, by drawing in the ‘Brightest and the Best’, as if these are the only people that are needed in a healthy and diverse economy. As they concentrate on attracting the ‘Brightest and the Best’, they insult all those migrant workers, who contribute to the UK’s economy, but remain working in tough conditions that British workers are reluctant to do.

At no point, has anyone actually tried to understand the motivations for migrants who move to the UK in the first place? Would someone offered a two-year visa without his or her family, and with restricted access to services, as suggested by Tony Blair himself, be an attractive proposition? Frankly, if it was me, I’d rather hedge my bets in other EU countries where at least I wouldn’t continue to be described in these derogatory ways, as our political and media establishment tend to do.

How low can you go?

Our fascination in classifying workers, is a curious one. We like to call workers- ‘low-skilled’, ‘high-skilled’, ‘high-value’, ‘talent’, ‘casual’, ‘agency’, ‘seasonal’- plus many other labels. We pigeon-hole them according to the sectors they work in and how ‘qualified’ you need to be to work in those sectors.

It isn’t just the government that uses such labels though, these are also being used by NGO’s, civil society, and the media. For example, the recent report by British Future, put migrant workers into the usual categories- ‘low-skilled’ and ‘high-skilled’ and then asked the public their opinion on these two groups. Unsurprisingly, the poll showed that 86% of the public would like to see high-skilled EU migration to stay at the same level as now or increase after Britain leaves the EU. And, for low-skilled migration, 64% of the public, wanted numbers reduced. But, there were some allowances for the number of care-workers and those in the agricultural, and hospitality industries to stay at current levels or increase.

Now, when we talk about ‘low-skilled’ let’s remember while not officially defined, if we look at who could come to the UK as a skilled workers, this is someone who earns over £30,000 and has a level 6 qualification. This means anyone who is qualified as a dental technician, an air traffic controller, and some teaching roles would be deemed to be ‘low-skilled’. Now, factor in pressure on our education and health services, can we afford to have these people barred from accessing the UK because they are not ‘skilled’ enough?

We rarely remember also that many migrant workers that work in these so-called ‘low-skilled’ sectors are usually over qualified, for these roles. As explained by research carried out by Compas in 2016, found repeatedly that a ‘foreign-born’ workforce tends to be more educated, and those from A8 countries are more likely to be employed in jobs which do not correspond with their qualification levels. So, why do they do those jobs? They see them as stepping stones- they use them as opportunities to improve their English, demonstrate their strong work ethic- and then get better jobs elsewhere or move upwards in those sectors.

Even in our investigations and discussions with migrant workers through the Route to Your Rights project, several people explained their qualifications were not valid in the UK, and that the process of requalifying was too lengthy. Add to this the pressure of having to retain a job, which meant that many are hindered from acquiring the skills necessary to requalify for jobs they had done in their home countries, and/or find adequate employment in the UK.


The APPG Migration report dispels the myth about ‘low-skilled’ roles

In its report last week, the APPG on Migration, recommended the ‘low-skilled’ label be ditched, as it found that for small businesses, and the care sector, it did not accurately describe the skills that were needed.

At the report launch, and in the evidence, the social care sector in England described that on any given day it has over 90,000 vacancies, and already struggles to fill these positions. The leaked document does little to factor in the impact on these sectors when it begins to create its rules for who can and can’t come in to work.  

As the APPG recommends, it would be worthwhile the government considers undertaking a consultation that goes beyond the one the Migration Advisory Committee has been commissioned to deliver. Then, we can truly understand the impact any restrictions on free movement of labour will have on these sectors. But more importantly, we would recommend they speak to the migrants themselves and understand their motivations for coming to the UK for work before they start closing the gates.


Fizza Qureshi is Director of MRN

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