Introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May in June, the temporary measure limits the number of skilled non-EU workers granted working visas until April 2011 to 24,100, under Tiers 1 and 2 of the existing points-based immigration system.
The interim arrangement will be replaced in April by an (as yet undecided) new permanent limit on non-EU workers, which will come into effect following a 12-week consultation period with government, business and other interest groups.
In her speech to the Conservative Party conference this week, May reiterated a manifesto undertaking that the measures are necessary to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
She said:“Our economy will remain open to the best and the brightest in the world, but it's time to stop importing foreign labour on the cheap.”
However, leading industry figures believe that both the interim and permanent caps risk damaging the UK economy as it continues to pull out of recession, given that the cap affects the initial entry or continued residence of workers such as engineers, whose skills are considered crucial.
Angela Coleshill, Food & Drink Federation’s (FDF) director of human resources, told FoodManufacture.co.uk the trade association was concerned that the interim cap was harming business: “The food industry has long maintained that flexibility is at the heart of its competitiveness.
“It is often reliant on the provision of workers at short notice. The availability of a flexible labour force is vital in resolving the issue of difficult to fill vacancies.
“In the UK this means that employers are largely tapping into the pool of migrant workers available and willing to respond to the sector’s needs.
“The FDF has worked closely with organisations within our sector and the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to target the number of ‘shortage occupations’ within the food and drink industry, which have traditionally included meat processing.
“There is concern that such a low cap would be bad for business and a call for the details of these measures, such as qualifying for Intra-Company Transfers [where staff within a multi-national company move between countries under the Tier 2 system] to remain as business-friendly and flexible as possible.”
‘A real headache’
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also opposes the current limit, although a spokeswoman said the business lobbying organisation has “no ideological problem with a permanent measure, so long as it works effectively.”
The CBI claims the interim arrangement needs reviewing following “serious problems for many companies”, since it has already stopped them from extending the stay of existing staff and recruiting additional ‘specialist’ Tier 2 workers.
CBI deputy director-general John Cridland said last Friday: “The system is being poorly managed and proving a real headache for firms trying to keep on valued foreign members of staff, or recruit specialists from overseas.
“These problems are undermining confidence that the permanent cap will work. The migration system must support, not hamper growth. To do this, it should prioritise skilled workers with a job offer.”
The overall impact on the food industry remains unclear, given that the measures affect skilled rather than low-skilled non-EU migrant workers (classified by the UK Border Agency as Tier 3), where the latter are not currently allowed to enter the UK.
However, the HR director of a leading own-label food supplier said: "I am aware that non-EU migrants do form a significant part of the food industry's work force in some areas such as technical and product development staff, primarily because there appears to be a shortage of suitably qualified graduates coming through the UK education system."