UK will not weather labour crisis without overseas workers


The problems aren’t specific to just a few industries either – UK businesses in just about every sector are desperate to hire new staff, with job vacancies reaching a new record in December 2021. From social care to haulage, hospitality to tech, and agriculture to manufacturing, HR professionals are tasked with the seemingly impossible challenge of recruiting and retaining workers.

Overseas labour is an essential ingredient in the UK economy
Seasonal and overseas labour has always played a crucial role in the UK economy, and as we enter our second year of the worst labour crisis since the late 1990s, tapping into international talent will be fundamental for ongoing recovery.

In agriculture, the National Farmers Union (NFU) estimates that as many as 55,000 overseas workers will be needed this year for fruit, veg and flower picking – after last year’s shortages saw farmers forced to give produce away for free to the general public, or leave crops to rot in fields. The UK’s food chain is particularly reliant on seasonal labour – with talent from the EU usually fulfilling key roles in agriculture.

Meanwhile, in social care, more than 400,000 staff left the sector in 2021, and health providers predict staff shortages will only worsen in the coming years. Non-British nationals make up 14% of the UK population – but 17% of the social care workforce in England alone.

With historically low wages but a need for highly skilled individuals, the care sector has been dramatically impacted by the UK’s new points based immigration system, requiring an annual salary of more than £25,000. Relaxed immigration rules coming this month, in a bid to fill crucial roles in the sector, will see the salary requirement lowered to £20,400 – although industry experts anticipate that this alone will not ease the care labour crisis.

The significance of workers from overseas to the success of a whole host of UK industries is clear, and the labour crisis cannot be solved without them. With around half of businesses reporting difficulties recruiting new staff, how can HR teams engage and encourage overseas workers to uproot their lives in order to join our workforce?

Providing employees from overseas with positive experiences
Ensuring that overseas workers have the best possible experience of working in the UK is one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention, with more needing to be done to encourage both EU and non-EU workers to stay in the UK long term. HR teams are at the very forefront of interactions with candidates and employees, and thus have a duty of care to all staff.

Leaving a home country in order to live and work in the UK comes with a unique set of significant challenges – many of which British nationals will simply not experience, nor understand. As a starting step, professionals in HR teams should familiarise themselves with the experiences of their international workers, in order to be able to better support them.

Language and communication barriers are a significant challenge in themselves (that can leave employees feeling isolated and lonely) – but loom larger when combined with the need to fully communicate swiftly changing and complex Covid-19 policies and restrictions. HR teams should make good use of translators in order to ensure people can communicate clearly with one another, but could also consider introducing additional training and partnerships with charitable groups to support language provision. Ensuring that employee resources and platforms are clear and easy to use for ESL (English as a second language) speakers is also key.

The pandemic has complicated life in the UK further – but some things remain fundamentally simple. Safe working practises, enjoyable working environments, fair living wages, and a generally positive experience with a company will encourage overseas workers to remain in the UK, or to return again at a later date. This is particularly key for seasonal labourers, who are needed year after year in order to ensure crops are harvested and shelves are stocked. Working on farms can be hard work – with long hours, early starts and the demand to work in all British weather conditions. Good experiences can be the difference between labourers choosing to work in the UK the following year again, or not at all.

The impact of financial exclusion on the workplace
There are other, hidden challenges for overseas workers coming to the UK too. Many find themselves unable to open a bank account on arrival in the country – leaving them one of the 1.3 million people who are ‘unbanked’. This is financial exclusion – the experience of being unable to access common financial services such as current and savings accounts, loans, cashless transactions and other banking services.

Financial exclusion can particularly affect non-UK nationals since most high street banks require a UK residential history and proof of address, as well as identification, in order to meet banking regulations. In many cases, it can take months for an employee coming from abroad to actually open a bank account. With wages being paid directly into an account, workers without one have no access to their money, and no way to be paid – leaving employees vulnerable to exploitation and caught in a vicious cycle of needing to work, but not being able to receive wages.

Overseas workers have the additional challenge of sourcing accommodation – made difficult for most people already by a UK housing crisis and distinct lack of affordable rented homes. But for non-UK nationals, the problem is compounded by a lack of banking services, and a tenancy might not be agreed until a bank account and proof of ability to pay rent is in place.

HR’s duty of care extends far beyond the workplace – since our personal lives are deeply connected to our experiences of work. Providing a positive experience for workers from overseas includes taking these significant challenges into consideration. Non-UK nationals will want confidence that they can access these key services – a home and a bank account – before they make their journey here. Instilling confidence, by providing guidance and support in these matters, will encourage more overseas workers to choose the UK in 2022.

Partnering with great organisations such as Just Good Work and the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) is an important way to ensure that HR professionals themselves are supported in this endeavour too.

The more seamless a transition into life in the UK is, the better the experience. For HRs, a candidate that cannot secure accommodation or receive wages, is one that cannot start work or fulfil the duties of their role. Encouraging an international workforce to start anew in the UK is one of the key routes towards tackling our extensive and damaging labour shortage. But it would be foolish to assume that life in the UK is already appealing enough to garner interest from overseas workers – HR teams and recruiters need to be actively engaged with international hiring, and ensuring support packages are in place so that those people who come here to help us can get the best possible start to their UK life.