The British manufacturing industry has slammed the government’s new immigration system, saying it disregards the sector and will be “disastrous” at a time when retailers are showing an increased interest in UK production.
Under the new points-based system, which takes effect from 1 January 2021, migrants will have to gain 70 points to be eligible for a visa. Skilled jobs in the fashion manufacturing industry such as sewing machinists and cutters will not reach the skilled training requirements for entrants under the new system.
“It’s going to be pretty disastrous for manufacturing,” said Kate Hills, founder of UK manufacturing platform Make it British. “[As a result of Brexit and the current coronavirus crisis], more people want to make locally and we just aren’t going to have the skills. Yes, we need to be training up our workers but unfortunately it’s not going to happen quick enough and there needs to be a longer transition period until the end of 2030.”
Hills predicts fashion brands will begin opening their own factories or production units, but called for more government support for manufacturers to help them grow.
Jenny Holloway, owner of London manufacturer Fashion Enter, said it is “a sad day” for UK manufacturing.
“I really object to the fact that our industry is regarded as cheap or low skilled labour and strongly suggest that the government should make the effort to visit manufacturers and see how skilled it is,” she told Drapers, labelling the new minimum general salary threshold of £25,600 as “unrealistic”. “It’s so disappointing that the government is not supporting the growth and rebirth of reshoring [manufacturing] at a time when coronavirus is playing absolute havoc with deliveries from China and we’ve had a spike in enquires and sampling from retailers.”
Simon Cotton, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin, agreed that the new system “weakens the ability of our textile manufacturing to compete worldwide”.
“Flexibility of labour supply is critical if we are to take expansion opportunities when these arise,” he told Drapers. “Although the industry is investing heavily in training it is often not possible to fully anticipate future skills needs. If we cannot respond quickly to such opportunities then we will not be able to respond to opportunities for growth which will instead go to countries with more rapid access to skills.”
In light of the new legislation, manufacturers may find themselves having to turn away business.
“If I get a £1m order I’m not going to be able to service that because I can’t get the staff now,” said Scott Mitchell general manager at Milton-Keynes based DNA Manufacturing. “I’m going to be forced to look for British people but if I do that, they’re all at retirement age because the industry [went off-shore] so long ago and there’s no training in it any more.”
He said DNA Manufacturing is now hoping for Scotland to gain independence and rejoin the EU so they can relocate the business: ”Otherwise we will look to wind the business up in the next few years. The government is not doing its due diligence. I’m flabbergasted as to why they are not looking at our industry with more detail, or if they have why they have made these decisions. It doesn’t make sense to a logical human being.”
Adam Mansell, CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association echoed the industry’s discontent and branded the new points-based system a “concern”: ”There is currently a significant shortage of skilled machinists in the fashion manufacturing sector. Our manufacturers rely on highly skilled workers, particularly from eastern Europe, and while these workers are highly skilled they may not have any formal qualifications.
”There is a growing interest in UK manufacturing capability and any restrictions to recruiting new talent poses a barrier to meeting that new demand. UKFT has been instrumental in ensuring that new apprenticeships are available to train the next generation of skilled workers but it takes time to recruit and train staff and the timescales of the new system mean that the shortfall in skilled staff will continue to limit the growth of the sector for some time to come.”