The fashion industry has warned that the sector could face staff shortages if a recommendation from a report to restrict the migration of workers comes into force.
Independent expert body The Migration Advisory Commitee’, which advises the government, published EEA migration in the UK: Final report earlier this week. It recommended that although there should be an easier pathway for higher-skilled migrant workers to come to the UK, restrictions should be put in place for lower-skilled workers.
The report read: “If immigration is not to be part of the negotiations with the EU and the UK is deciding its future migration system in isolation, we recommend moving to a system in which all migration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens.”
Professor Alan Manning, chair of the MAC, said: “There is no way to change the migration system without creating winners and losers. But we believe the UK should focus on enabling higher-skilled migration coupled with a more restrictive policy on lower-skilled migration in the design of its post-Brexit system.”
The report sent shockwaves through the fashion industry.
James Eden, managing director of British-made premium menswear label Private White VC, which employs many European Union nationals in roles such as pattern-cutters and machinists, said he was alarmed by the recommendation: “Around 70% to 80% of our staff are from the EU. We’re constantly looking to recruit skilled or non-skilled workers and, if anything, it’s already hard enough, so any obstacle to stop people from coming is extremely concerning.”
Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, said the trade body was ”disappointed” with the recommendations: “We need to attract the brightest and best talent to come and work in the UK. The brightest and best must mean both the leading designer, but also the sewing machinist, pattern-cutter or weaver. Under the existing visa scheme for non-EU nationals, jobs such as sewing machinists are not classified as highly skilled. This is inaccurate, and must not be repeated when establishing the new system for accessing EU talent. Any new EU visa system must also recognise that highly skilled roles do not necessarily equate to highly paid jobs. Without a highly skilled sample machinist, a designer’s creativity will never get turned in to the dress on the catwalk.”
Mansell said that as as result of a lack of focus on manufacturing as a positive career in schools and colleges, the industry is currently experiencing a limited pool of home-grown skilled manufacturing talent.
“Companies are forced to recruit from countries such as Poland, Romania and Hungary, where workers have the appropriate skills,” he added.
Jenny Holloway, chief executive at London manufacturer Fashion Enter, said the recommendation had left her concerned: “What are the distinguishing factors on what’s high skilled and low skilled? I know that our EU machinists are all highly skilled, so will the Migration [Advisory] Committee recognise these skills? There is a major resurgence of onshoring garment manufacturing now and we need a pipeline of experienced, skilled machinists. Officials need to be industry-focused and have a benchmark of what higher skills really are, and if our wonderful machinists are not truly appreciated, then the ESFA [Education & Skills Funding Agency] needs to release more AEB [Adult Education Budget] funding to allow upskilling to occur in the UK. If the government does not recognise garment machinists as highly skilled, I will be extremely alarmed and quite frankly annoyed.”
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC said EEA nationals play an invaluable role in the retail industry and its supply chains. ”The retail industry accepts that free movement from the EU is coming to an end but tightly restricting the migration system would have a negative impact on consumers. The government should publish the details of the new system sooner rather than later to ensure consumers and businesses are not adversely affected.”
In March 2017, recruitment website Indeed analysed Office for National Statistics data and found that around 1 million jobs created in the UK since 2008 – 44.3% of all new jobs – had been filled by people who were born in another EU country.