The UK’s points-based immigration system, which only permits highly skilled work, was extended to European nationals in January. Since then, the ability of European nationals to come to the UK for employment without restriction has ended and all non-UK nationals without alternative permissions have required a work visa.
However, HGV drivers and those working in some areas of food production are not deemed sufficiently skilled to be eligible for such visas. A combination of factors, including workers returning home as a result of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to acute labour shortages and the knock-on impact on food supply chains.
Announcements to date
On 25 September 2021 the Government announced that temporary visas would be available for 5,500 poultry workers and 5,000 HGV food drivers to enable them to work until Christmas Eve.
This was swiftly followed by an announcement that 300 of the HGV driver visas would be immediately available for fuel drivers to tackle the nationwide shortage of fuel at pumps.
The lengths of the visas was then extended from Christmas Eve to 28 February 2022 for food haulage drivers, and 31 December 2021 for poultry workers.
Initially the scheme seemed aimed solely at ensuring there was enough food in the supermarkets at Christmas and that the immediate fuel crisis was alleviated – rather than addressing wider supply pressures on a longer-term basis. However, the fact that it has already been extended suggests a shift in emphasis.
In a sign of just how swiftly the situation is developing, it has since been announced that a further 800 pork butchers will be eligible to apply for visas for up to six months.
Butchers are already recognised as sufficiently skilled to be eligible for sponsorship under the Skilled Worker route. However, the administrative burden and costs associated with sponsorship, in addition to minimum salary thresholds, mean this is not always an attractive option.
The Seasonal Worker route
The Government has confirmed that HGV driver, poultry worker and pork butcher visas will be delivered under the Seasonal Worker sub-category of the Temporary Worker route, which has traditionally allowed overseas workers to come to the UK for farm work (for example, fruit picking).
There are four approved scheme operators able to act as the sponsors for workers under this category. Employers wishing to engage individuals on a temporary visa must contract with one of these.
Each operator has its own terms and fee structures, for example depending on whether the operator will source the workers on the employer's behalf or whether the employer will do this themselves. Therefore employers need to assess which is most suitable to their needs.
The extension of the temporary visa scheme to butchers came despite repeated Government insistence that the UK domestic workforce should be the sole source of 'unskilled' labour and that the concessions for HGV food drivers and poultry workers were an exceptional response to exceptional pressures.
Whether further pressures on supply chains, and the resulting negative headlines and public discontent, will lead to additional concessions and an extension to other industries outside fuel and food haulage and poultry and pig farming remains to be seen.
However, it is clear that there continues to be a need to bring foreign labour into the UK workforce and this is only likely to increase for many sectors. Businesses need to ensure they have the necessary permissions in place to bring those workers into the country when the need arises.
Shabana Muneer is a director in the employment department at law firm Walker Morris and heads up its Business Immigration team.