The UK's immigration paradox: A growing foreign workforce amid restrictive policies

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Published on 2023-09-06 at 13:00 by Asaël Häzaq
With Brexit, the world expected the United Kingdom's decline, especially considering the successive reforms seen as aggressive towards immigrants. However, if immigrants were gone, the British economy would suffer from persistent labor shortages. While labor shortages remain a reality, the growing presence of immigrants is real, too. Foreign interest in Britain is growing, even as the government tightens the screws. How do we explain this paradox?

A growing interest in job prospects in the UK

According to a recent study published by Indeed, the proportion of job searches in the UK by foreign workers rose from 2.2% in 2021 (an all-time low) to 5.5% in 2023. While the difference may seem small, the increase is actually significant, amounting to +146%, according to Indeed. That's far higher than the rise observed between 2017 and 2019.

What led to this situation? Since 2021 and the implementation of the new points-based immigration system, working in the UK has become more restrictive. Employers are now required to sponsor applicants without permanent residence or settled status to obtain visas for them before their arrival on British territory.

Despite these restrictions, figures from the Indeed report show a rising interest from foreign workers in the home care and healthcare professions, particularly from Indian, Nigerian and South African workers. The study recorded 9.3 percent of clicks from overseas, up 7.3 % from 2019. It's worth noting that the UK continues to face a severe labor shortage in the healthcare sector. The cash-strapped NHS is recruiting far beyond its borders. Doctors and nurses from Africa are being recruited to work in British facilities at higher salaries. This phenomenon exacerbates the shortage of doctors in their own countries. A situation denounced by the WHO as the result of a worldwide shortage of healthcare professionals, but which does not curb immigration to the UK. After all, the UK is still perceived as an economically dynamic country.

Demographic decline and new migration trends

While the major immigration hubs continue to attract expatriate candidates, smaller countries are also making their mark, such as Ireland, the 15th most popular country for foreign job seekers. Luxembourg, Oman and Switzerland also stand out. They ranked first, second and third, respectively. The war in Ukraine has also reshuffled the cards regarding international job mobility. Again, the major immigration countries remain at the top of the rankings. Ukrainian refugees are moving more toward English-speaking countries. According to Indeed, 34% of clicks are for the very popular Canada and 25% for the USA. The UK receives 15% of clicks.

According to Pawel Adrjan, Director of Research at Indeed, the aging population in many major economies is another crucial factor to consider. Labor shortages and demographic decline also explain global migration trends.

However, the points-based visa system is in no way liable for the UK's growing attractiveness in the eyes of foreign talent. In fact, the points-based system is supposed to promote selective immigration by "limiting" recruitment to foreign talent. This means prioritizing local talent. According to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a London-based human resources association, only 15% of employers have used the new system to sponsor foreign workers. While the points-based visa system works for highly skilled foreign professionals, it is less favorable for other sectors. Many vacancies are still hard to fill, and companies are struggling to recruit locally. At the same, local workers are also having a hard time finding jobs that match their skills and qualifications.

The British dream is real

Overall, the UK remains a favorite destination for many foreign professionals. And it's yet to be seen whether the government's new plans to increase the migrant health surcharge and skilled worker visa application fees cost the UK will have an impact on immigration. The country is still considered an open economy with an international dimension and a lot of career opportunities. Despite worrying inflation, the housing crisis and protests, the UK remains a dreamland for many.

Rather than dwell on the country's internal divisions, expats are instead looking at the sectors facing labor shortages. Both companies and Home Secretary Suella Braverman believe that parting with foreign workers is neither realistic nor achievable.