There are fears that the hospitality and tourism sectors in Northern Ireland will be seriously adversely affected by radical new Home Office proposals that are set to make it much more difficult to recruit migrant workers with vital soft skills.
The Home Office has said that after Brexit, it intends to introduce a new points-based system which will rely on incoming workers being able to speak English and earning a salary in the region of £25,600.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel, says that the new rules were designed to encourage employers to ‘invest in homegrown talent’, but the move is likely only to further restrict the availability of foreign labour for customer-facing sectors such as hospitality and tourism across NI, where those with the necessary skill sets are already in dire short supply.
Speaking to LCN this month, Dr Joanne Stuart, chief executive of the NI Tourism Alliance, said that she was ‘disappointed and concerned’ by the policy statement. Putting the level of that concern at eight or nine on a scale of 10, Dr Stuart added:
‘We are currently putting a response together on this for the Home Office and for our own Executive ministers, and we absolutely supported Diane Dodds [NI Economy Minister] when she said recently that from an Executive perspective, they would also be taking this forward with the Home Office. This is very concerning for us.’
Dr Stuart also pointed out that while a recent report from the Migration Advisory Committee had accepted that there could be a case for varying the minimum salary levels in certain regions of the UK, and particularly in NI, this had not been taken forward by the Home Office. Calling for consideration to be given to the suggestion, she added:
‘We now have the lowest unemployment rate on record and this is a very competitive market locally for anyone looking for skilled employees. It’s a real challenge to see how we are going to fill our employment needs from the local market.’
Roisin McKee, NI director for People 1st International and newly-appointed project director of the HATS Network, which seeks to attract and retain talent for the hospitality and tourism sectors, also acknowledges mounting fears around the availability of soft-skilled migrant labour:
‘When we look at the immigration side of things there are unique circumstances here, we are at almost full employment and we just don’t have the capacity to meet the sector’s needs,’ she adds.
‘The HATS Network has it in its work plan to look at working with the Department for Communities in order to better engage with the economically inactive, but that is not going to be a panacea,’ she warned. ‘Immigration is a critical piece when it comes to the sector’s growth and it’s going to be about having a flexible policy that takes account of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.’