Legal: UK shortage occupation review
Recruitment challenges since Brexit, exacerbated by the pandemic, are well documented. Here, Joanne Hennessy, business immigration partner at law firm TLT, discusses whether the shortage occupation list (SOL) can be used to ease recruitment challenges for employers in the hospitality sector.
What is the SOL?
A list of roles the government has accepted are in short supply in the UK labour market. The current list can be found here and does not include any specific hospitality roles. It was last reviewed in detail in 2020 and, to coincide with the spring 2023 budget, an interim review has just been completed, focusing on construction and hospitality. This can be found here.
What are the benefits of the SOL?
Post-Brexit, most non-British/Irish nationals need a visa to work in the UK – most commonly an employer-sponsored skilled worker visa.
The current SOL includes roles that already qualify for skilled worker visas. The only exception to that is care workers and home carers, which were added in 2022 in response to specific recruitment challenges and would not otherwise qualify for skilled worker visas.
The current key benefits of being on the SOL are:
- Lower salary thresholds: A salary of £20,480 or 80% of the going rate for the role (whichever is higher) will qualify for a skilled worker visa (compared to the current threshold of £25,600).*
- Lower visa fees: For example, a skilled worker visa (three years or less) application submitted outside the UK will attract a fee of £479 if the role is on the SOL, compared to a standard fee of £625.
What could change?
SOL amendments are usually recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), but may not be accepted by the government. The MAC’s interim review was published on 15 March 2023, and they have not recommended the addition of any hospitality roles to the SOL (which the government has accepted), although it is notable that their recommendations are based on limited stakeholder evidence, given the tight timescales provided by the government. The government has commissioned the MAC to review the SOL in full (the roles on it and the salary requirements) and a call for evidence opened on 27 February and closes on 26 May 2023.
Some hospitality roles already qualify for skilled worker visas but if added to the SOL they would benefit from the above cost savings (e.g. restaurant managers, publicans, chefs, bar managers, floor managers, stewards and kitchen managers). However, many in the sector are facing challenges filling roles which don’t currently qualify for these visas due to their skill level (e.g. cooks, cleaning staff, bar staff, kitchen assistants and waiting staff). More than 60% of hospitality roles are ineligible for skilled worker visas. Their addition to the SOL would mark a significant change for employers, opening them to a much wider labour market.
It should be noted that roles are intended to be on the SOL temporarily. Employers and sectors will be expected to be able to demonstrate longer-term plans to address recruitment challenges other than through migrant recruitment – e.g. by improving terms and conditions, progression opportunities, grassroots recruitment and training to attract recruits from the domestic labour market.
Generally, evidence must be compelling across a sector to support the addition of new roles to the SOL. If a role is not added to the SOL, there is precedent for the government to make it eligible for skilled worker visas if it previously hasn’t been (as was done for certain deckhands on fishing vessels, for example). The MAC has already indicated it would welcome evidence as to whether sommeliers should be regraded to qualify for skilled worker visas.
The SOL is not a magic wand, other challenges include:
- It’s an increasingly competitive global market in which to attract recruits
- Skilled worker visas require the employer to have a UK sponsor licence (bringing cost, process and compliance obligations they may be new to)
- The role will still have to meet the applicable salary requirements to qualify for the visa
- Skilled worker visas attract costs (sponsorship, immigration skills charge, visa fees and immigration health surcharge). E.g. a three-year visa for a large sponsor for a candidate from overseas costs around £5,550 (£3,199 must be met by the employer, but often the full sum is shouldered)
- Any skilled worker visa applicants must meet strict English language requirements.
Notwithstanding the interim SOL review, employers affected by staff shortages in the sector are encouraged to participate in the call for evidence. Roles will only be considered for inclusion on the SOL if evidence is received in respect of them.
*The salary thresholds will increase to £20,960 and £26,200 in April 2023 to reflect the cost of living.