Beyond temporary labour migration schemes: Options for regulating lower-skilled migration after Brexit

Last week we published a report on UK immigration policy after Brexit, focusing on regulating immigration into lower-skilled jobs. The report, entitled Options Ahead: Approaches to Lower Skilled Migration After Brexit, was written by a team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, including Sarah Kyambi, Rebecca Kay and me. Sarah has also published a blog on the findings, and an article on the report appeared in the Herald. Pasted below is the executive summary.


Reviewing the Policy Options

The report analyses a range of schemes designed to meet labour market, demographic and social goals.Sectoral schemes focus on recruiting workers to particular sectors or occupations; they aim to address specific sectoral or occupational shortages, at a range of skills levels. Employer-led schemes select workers based on employer demand; they assume that employers are best placed to identify shortages, and oftenbuild in ‘tests’ for employers to demonstrate they cannot fill vacancies from the domestic labour force.Human capital schemes select workers based on their individual characteristics, such as work experience, family status, language skills or ties with the country/region, and allow them more generous rights and flexibility in choosing employment. These schemes are often targeted at immigrants with higher skills, but may also be aimed at attracting those with lower skills, in order to address aggregate shortages and/or to meet demographic goals.

These three types of programme can be further subdivided according to the package of rights they grant. Possible rights include: opportunities for switching job or employer (employer mobility); opportunities for switching location within the host country (regional mobility); access to welfare; family rights, including family reunification; length of stay; and pathways to permanent settlement or citizenship. Typically, thesedimensions are grouped together across schemes: thus schemes that restrict migrants’ access to welfare and rights tend to operate on the basis of short-term stays; where migrants stay longer, a more generous package of rights is needed. The study explores 6 case studies from other industrialised countries, including examples of each type of programme and with a variety of associated packages of rights.

Sectoral schemes: The sectoral schemes studied include two restrictive regimes which recruit workers mainly into agriculture – the New Zealand RSE programme and the German Temporary Seasonal Worker programme. These both provide short-term, often circular, migration to fill seasonal labour demand, with an emphasis on enforcing return (at 9 months in New Zealand and 3 months in Germany). There are no opportunities to extend stay or switch to another status, and no family rights or access to welfare.

Both schemes are regulated through bilateral agreements, which ensure the return of migrant workers. The programmes also meet various foreign policy and development goals.

By contrast, the Canadian caregiver programme enables households requiring live-in care to hire a foreign worker, subject to a labour market test. Caregivers can apply for permanent residence after 2 years, and can be accompanied by their family under certain conditions. The generosity of the scheme reflects the challenges in attracting suitable candidates for this kind of work.

All of these programmes tie migrant workers to an employer, and this can make workers more vulnerable to exploitation. The more generous Canadian scheme has attracted workers with higher skills levels who trade off working at the level of their qualifications with the opportunity to access more generous rights and settlement in Canada after the initial 2 years.

Employer-led schemes: The Swedish 2008 Immigration Law and the Spanish Catalogue of Hard-to-Fill vacancies both allow employers to recruit across the skills spectrum, including to lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs. Both also grant increasing access to social and family rights and pathways to settlement over time. Under the Swedish scheme permits are granted for 2 years for migrants with job offers; permits may be extended for a further 2 years, after which migrants can apply for permanent status. Access to welfare rights and family reunion is granted after the first year. The Spanish scheme operates a similarly staged route (with some variations). Both systems have been flexible in adapting to changing employer demand.

In both countries, the more generous rights are partly driven by the need to attract migrants to settle, in order to offset ageing populations. In Sweden, there is also concern about attracting migrants, given language barriers. In Spain, the key factor driving the more generous approach is the desire to channel irregular flows through legal routes. The relative generosity of these programmes also shows that social norms and values are reflected within immigration systems. In both Spain and Sweden ideals of equality and non-discrimination work against a stratification of rights that excludes immigrants in the longer term.

Human capital schemes: The Manitoba Provincial Nominee Programme is a points-based system, which selects migrants at a range of skills levels, with the goal of increasing settlement migration to Manitoba. This reflects a need to meet labour market gaps, but also to counter population decline and ageing. Migrants are selected based on their personal characteristics and ties to the province, and more recently there has been a requirement that the nominee have a job offer. This shift reflects concern that the programme was not effectively matching immigrants to the right jobs – a type of ‘deskilling’ that can be a problem acrossprogrammes with generous rights, as they are likely to attract migrants who are overqualified for the jobs being offered. However, the programme has been successful in attracting and retaining more settlement migration to the province.

Immigrant Decision-making

The report examines how different types of schemes might affect the mobility decisions of immigrants, an oft neglected aspect of immigration policy making, drawing on data on EEA migrants resident in Scotland. The project draws on extensive interview data gathered before the Brexit vote, supplemented with further focus groups and interviews. The data suggests that a change to a more restrictive system with a more complicated entry regime would reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a destination, placing it in direct competition with other English-speaking destination countries such as the USA and Canada, as well as with countries maintaining free movement. This double competition may particularly affect decision-making among younger migrants with good English-language skills and for those wishing to settle longer term as a family.

The research focused on the six different dimensions of programmes outlined above (employer mobility, regional mobility, welfare, family rights, length of stay, and pathways to settlement). It found that:

  • The ability to change employer was a popular feature of free movement, and many EEA migrants made use of this mobility to secure better pay and conditions, especially over the longer term. Nonetheless, others had found it impossible to progress remaining in insecure, low paid work below their skills level. Therefore, some would be prepared to be tied to a job, at least initially, if this implied better safeguards.
  • Regional mobility was a valued feature of free movement, and had led some people to relocate to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK and/or to more rural or remote areas once in Scotland. On the other hand, regional mobility can also draw people away from areas with less attractive employment opportunities, smaller existing migrant communities or fewer leisure and cultural facilities. The potential impact of restricted mobility differed by age and lifestage, with younger migrants most likely to be deterred by such restrictions.
  • Participants were keen to stress that access to welfare and social security was not a driver for migration decisions. However, in many cases social security had played a crucial role in longer-term settlement, making low paid work viable and sustainable, especially for families.
  • Views on family rights differed by age and lifestage, with younger, unattached migrants not finding such rights a priority. However, for those with families rights to family reunion were extremely important and determinative in decisions to settle longer term. The larger data set also contained a number of non-EEA nationals who reported significant distress and complications generated by their lack of family rights.
  • Decision-making regarding length of stay is complex and open-ended. The majority of EEA nationals did not originally arrive with a long-term stay in mind. Thus restrictions on length of stay would not deter most people. However, the flexible nature of free movement has facilitated the development of longer-term settlement over time. In areas where longer stays are desired due to demographic, social or labour market needs, the loss of such flexibility, accompanied by straightforward pathways to settlement may be more problematic, and is likely in particular to deter families with children.


    Policy makers need to balance a range of labour market, demographic and social goals in developing policies to regulate low-skilled migration. But crucially, they also need to consider how different programmes are likely to affect decisions on mobility and settlement. A shift to a more restrictive system is likely to have substantial effects on the supply of EEA nationals into lower-skilled jobs and reduces the likelihood of migrants settling for the longer term.

    Our data show how decisions made during a period of free movement have been shaped by the flexibility that this framework affords. Whilst it is difficult to predict precisely how decisions will change under a new migration regime, it seems highly likely that certain groups of migrants, in particular families with young children, and those seeking longer-term settlement and stability, will be deterred by a more restrictive system.

    Whatever programme is adopted, the UK and Scotland will have to compete with other countries as potential migrant destinations. For EEA nationals, other countries within the EEA will become attractive alternatives. Other English-speaking countries (USA, Canada or Australia) with more complex entry requirements may also begin to emerge as more attractive destinations, especially for younger migrants with good English-language skills.

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