Are highly skilled migrants doing highly skilled work in the UK?
The latest piece of government research into Tier 1 of the Points Based System - for highly skilled workers, entrepreneurs and investors - released last week raises many more questions than it answers.
The Tier 1 ‘operational assessment’ sampled 1184 Tier 1 migrants, who were applying to bring a dependent to join them in the UK, in June this year. The aim was to find out whether they were in work in the UK, and whether the jobs they were doing could be considered ‘skilled’ or ‘unskilled’ work. This was assessed by looking at job titles and salary levels, with those bringing in more than £25,000 p.a. and in 'higher level' employment considered to be 'skilled' and those earning under £25K considered 'unskilled'. Overall, 25% of the Tier 1 migrants sampled were found to be in skilled work and 29% in unskilled work. However, the data available about the other 46% of the sample was too ‘vague’ or incomplete to be able to draw a conclusion about the skill level of their occupation in the UK.
This report has been presented by the government as big news, demonstrating that Tier 1 migrants are simply not performing at the level of the labour market that they should be. It was released alongside a statement from immigration minister Damien Green announcing that “this report questions the value of [the Tier 1] route into the UK, and the findings will play a key part in discussions on how the annual limit will be shaped'. As such it seems that the government may be seeking to tighten up Tier 1 alongside the introduction of a cap on economic migrants to the UK. But would this report really justify further restrictions on Tier 1?
A closer look at the research methodology used in the home office research, as argued here by the ippr, throws some doubts over the use of these findings. This research uses a limited sample, including only Tier 1 migrants applying to bring dependents in the UK, and excluding other Tier 1 migrants. No conclusions about occupation level have been drawn for almost half of those surveyed and very little other information is known about the sample. These findings do not seem to correlate with other, more extensive pieces of research into Tier 1. In their comment, ippr points to a similar, but more in-depth home office survey released in December 2009, which showed that 70% of Tier 1 migrants in the UK during early 2009 were in skilled work, despite the context of the recession. A substantial report into the design and operation of Tier 1 by the independent Migration Advisory Committee, released less than a year ago, concluded that it plays an important role in attracting highly skilled immigrants. In this context, the latest home office report seems to be far from the final word on Tier 1.
Nevertheless, big concerns that Tier 1 is too flexible in 'enabling' migrants to under-perform in the labour market have been laid out by policy-makers, using this report as back-up. Damien Green has commented that “Those coming into the UK under the highly skilled migrant route should only be able to do highly skilled jobs - it should not be used as a means to enter the low-skilled jobs market”. The current flexibility of Tier 1, which enables migrants to take unskilled employment during their stay if they need to, was introduced for a reason. The idea was that highly skilled migrants have leapt over considerable, and expensive, hurdles, in order to enter the UK and that they can be depended upon to want to move to skilled (and well-paid) employment here as soon as possible. Allowing Tier 1 migrants some freedom to find their own employment when here in the UK was supposed to enable them to create, and seize, opportunities as and when they arise – and for the economy to make the most of their capabilities in the medium and long term.
So, would the finding that a proportion of highly skilled migrants sampled in June were employed as cleaners and security guards really be such a disaster? Well, final conclusions about this would be limited without knowing more about the circumstances of those sampled - and there is plenty here that we do not know. For example, how long had those who were employed in work paid at less than £25,000 p.a. been doing so for? It is possible that some of the sample had initially been able to get more work at their skill level and were then made redundant. Other migrants sampled may have just arrived in the UK and be tiding themselves over with low-paid work while looking for something better - there is nothing necessarily problematic about that. A wider examination of the circumstances and experiences of Tier 1 migrants might even turn up some uncomfortable information about the workings of the UK labour market in relation to migrants - such as whether they had faced discrimination in trying to get employment in the UK, or had other negative experiences in trying to get a job, including in relation to the specific sector, language, country of origin and gender. The report, for example, suggests that Pakistani nationals under Tier 1 are significantly less likely to be in skilled employment than Indians and Nigerians - a worrying finding which merits closer examination.
Overall, it may be that, rather than leaping to make the Tier 1 route even tougher to access and navigate for migrants, it would make more sense to proceed cautiously. What we seem to have now is a shaky snapshot of the numbers relating to in-country employment of highly skilled migrants at one point in time – certainly an area where very little information is currently available. But what we need is a more rounded information base to support a proper understanding of the experiences that skilled migrant workers have in the UK – this could even be extended to a wider rethink of how we monitor and value migration outcomes.