Rethinking population and immigration
THIS week the States of Guernsey will be debating the Population and Immigration Policy Review. The big question is if it goes far enough.
Population management law is ‘designed to make sure that the island has the right mix of people supporting our economy and community now and also for the future’. In the absence of current economic and skills strategies, who determines what this ‘right-mix’ is?
The current jobs market is the only proxy available. Historically, Guernsey has had an exceptionally low unemployment rate (currently at 1%) meaning that any business creating new jobs can only fulfil them from the local workforce if workers leave other businesses. The dynamics are a zero-sum game, where employers with the biggest pockets have more power to hire and retain employees with more attractive packages. This is hugely limiting to the many businesses that cannot out-compete finance and professional services sectors. There are also jobs, such as in hospitality and cleaning, that simply cannot be filled with local workers for love or money.
In such a situation businesses are reliant on hiring workers from outside so every job filled is a plus to the economy. Any person coming to Guernsey on employment permits is only going to stay for as long as they can hold a job and afford to live here (unless they win the lottery) and only keep holding a job if they fulfil their role satisfactorily and their employer continues in business. They would not be able to come in the first place if they cannot find a place to live.
By this logic, the market should be able to regulate itself entirely without an employment permit system. Evidence suggests that Guernsey has well over 1,000 vacant jobs right now, possibly much higher. The truth is we don’t know exactly because many jobs are not advertised so public vacancies data is not sufficient. However, there is no doubt that all industries are struggling, especially those reliant on migrant workers. Many have complained to me directly that their job is now mainly about recruitment and sorting housing for staff.
Given the current jobs market we should be allowing anyone to come in and stay for as long as needed, subject to finding accommodation. Yet, population management continues to be very strict in relation to roles that may be classed as low-paid and low-skilled, a classification which is very unfortunate because no economy can function without such jobs. Our hospital would struggle to open without a clean each day.
Population and Immigration Policy Review key recommendations
1. Maintaining current levels of workforce by 2050 by net migration of 300 per year.
2. Reduce short-term employment permit (Steps) down to three years from five.
3. Remove medium-term employment permits completely.
4. Make it easier to recruit from rest of the world.
A key change of the proposed Population and Immigration Review is that Steps will only be renewed annually up to three years (down from five) to prevent such workers from reaching settlement status. This will significantly increase the churn of workers (up to 40%) and the costs to business to hire and retain staff. So why not scrap the regime completely?
This is when things start getting tricky. We are not fully in control of local population management because of our unique constitutional relationship with the UK and inter-dependencies with the UK immigration policy. This has come to the fore with Brexit, following which the UK’s policy has been to keep low-paid/low-skilled labour out. This drives our own permit system and limits our ability to give long-term employment permits (LTEPs) for job roles that the UK does not consider skilled. (As a side note, not that this immigration stance is actually working for the UK anyway that faces equally bad challenges with filling low-paid jobs.)
Not only does population management impose controls on duration of employment, it also drives where people live. For workers on Steps, this means living in shared local or open market accommodation, sometimes of questionable quality. This may be alright if you are in your twenties but not really if you want to start a family and want more independence. The new changes will drive the wedge between those considered skilled and those who are not even further and exacerbate the ‘us and them’ attitude.
Couple this with the high-cost of living, no wonder Guernsey struggles to recruit to low-skilled jobs.
This will be increasingly crippling for sectors that remain over-reliant on migrant workers with hospitality, facilities (cleaning), construction and some retail affected most.
It should be incumbent on the Committee for Home Affairs, which operates our population and immigration policies, to do everything possible to remove barriers to attract and keep workers, given the acute jobs situation and the identified long-term need to maintain the workforce at today’s levels.
I have submitted some amendments which seek to direct Home Affairs to explore options to make our policies more flexible and able to address the pressing jobs crisis. Our economy cannot do without a Home Affairs demonstrating a real ‘can-do’ attitude, leaving no option unturned when it comes to being more supportive of the needs of businesses now and in the future.
u Explore the option to provide more long-term employment pathways for residents of the Common Travel Area because they are not subject to the UK immigration rules and are already settled in the area.
u Explore how we could increase the number of roles available on the long-term employment permit list to meet our specific economic needs.
This may involve changes to our existing population and immigration regime and some difficult conversations with the UK. They may not be easy, but these questions need to be asked.
I have no doubt Home Affairs can rise to the challenge.
Without that, the strategic objective to increase cumulative migration over the next 30 years may fall flat on its face because of the very regime that is key to making it happen.