The price of ending cheap foreign labour

Following the government’s announcement of a new immigration policy designed to exclude “low-skilled” migrants, Nick Hughes says we might all miss their contribution to the economy when they’re no longer here.

Some years ago, after graduating from university, I spent several months working in a newly opened branch of Carluccio’s in Tunbridge Wells. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had – marginally more demanding than the summer I spent pushing metal cages around a Marks & Spencer warehouse.

Prior to launch night, all waiting staff were put through a rigorous week-long induction where tasks ranged from learning how to carry three plates at a time (or four for those blessed with greater dexterity) to memorising every dish and ingredient on the menu.

I never did master the technical elements but I worked sufficiently hard to keep the majority of my customers happy. After a typical Saturday night shift running eight tables I would collapse at home in a state of sweaty exhaustion, often grabbing just a few hours’ sleep ahead of a breakfast shift the following morning.

By comparison, sitting at a desk, supping tea while penning missives about food and environmental affairs feels like the proverbial walk in the park.

I was transported back to my time at Carluccio’s last week after reading about the government’s new immigration system that will award visas only to those who gain sufficient points for their skills, qualifications, salaries or professions.

The policy’s headline is that it will end the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country.

This immediately begs the question: what do we consider to be low-skilled labour? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that those people working tirelessly in cafes, restaurants, hotels and other catering establishments are included. As are those working on farms and in food production facilities.

Based on my own experience of working in the hospitality sector and of visiting numerous food manufacturing facilities over the years, I find the description of low-skilled work hard to reconcile with the reality.

There seems to me to be an inherent snobbery in the classification of certain manual labour as low-skilled, presumably because it does not form part of the school curriculum. But why is delivering outstanding restaurant service, juggling 10 coffee orders at a time, or filleting a fish in five seconds flat any less skilful than programming a computer or trading stocks and shares? Are these not all learned skills that, with the right training and application, can be accomplished by people from any academic background?

In a round of television and radio interviews last week, home secretary Priti Patel made the point that “economically inactive” British workers could fill the vacancies left by low-skilled EU and migrant workers. The inference being that such work is not so much a vocation but a means of getting people off benefits and onto the payroll.

Speak to employers, however, and they will tell a different story. Most food and hospitality businesses see their staff as their most valuable asset, not just because of the functions they perform but the energy and ideas – often with a sustainability bent – they bring to the organisation. Who better to suggest ideas for reducing food waste than the chefs and waiting staff who are preparing and serving the food? What greater ambassadors are there for reusable cups than baristas who exchange a warm word with customers who own one?

The trouble with ideologically driven policy-making is that it ignores the reality of how things function on the ground. Pret revealed a couple of years ago that just one in every 50 applicants for a job in one of the company’s shops was British. Business groups from a range of sectors are already warning of the risk of labour shortages and reduced levels of service for customers under the new system.

It’s the people who pick our fruit and serve our coffee, as much as those who perform brain surgery and trade in arcane financial products, who keep the wheels of the economy turning.

Perhaps the government will have a change of heart. If not, we might all come to appreciate the efforts and talents of those in “low-skilled” work a little bit more when they’re no longer here.

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