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UK business chiefs slam 'insulting' government rhetoric on migrant workers

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
UK home secretary Priti Patel and prime minister Boris Johnson (Paul Ellis /WPA/Getty Images)

Business leaders have accused the UK government of using “ghastly” and “insulting” language about workers earning less than the government’s immigration salary threshold.

Many British firms find talk of ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers “insulting and wrong,” according to Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

The head of Britain’s largest business lobby group spoke out after home secretary Priti Patel shocked firms by announcing a clampdown on low-paid migration last week.

An official policy statement says Britain’s new immigration system will prioritise the “high-skilled workers we need,” moving away from a “reliance on cheap labour from Europe.”

Firms fear staff shortages in agriculture, care, construction,hospitality, logistics and food processing in particular when EU free movement ends in 2021.

Read more: Patel warns firms’ immigration demands would ‘recreate free movement’

Fairbairn, speaking at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, said members of the CBI had concerns about the government’s language as well as the new rules.

“Talking about ‘low-skilled’ is wrong. We should be talking about people who have skills, but are low paid,” she said.

She acknowledged the reforms gave firms the chance to “really work on” training British workers. But she said firms were already investing in staff, and needed to talk about it “loudly and proudly.”

“This isn’t that we’re relying on overseas labour. We are investing in our local skills back home. We need to do both,” she said during a panel event at the conference.

NFU president Minette Batters also attacked the government’s division of workers into ‘low-skilled’ and ‘high-skilled’ at a panel event alongside Fairbairn.

Read more: US ‘confused’ by UK concern over NHS and food in trade deals

She called it a “ghastly, binary, polarised point of view,” and made Britain less attractive to migrant workers, on top of sterling’s declining exchange rate.

Batters said: “We were the most preferred country in Europe...now people don’t want to come and work here because they feel less welcome. I think it’s abhorrent and I hope it changes."

Fairbairn added that the immigration reforms will be “challenging” for firms in sectors not in the government’s list of areas with shortages. Only those included can sponsor workers with job offers, while the pool of potential workers arriving without jobs will be vastly reduced as EU free movement ends.

But Fairbairn sought to reassure farmers there was some flexibility in the system after meeting with immigration minister Kevin Foster. Shortage categories could be kept under “very rapid review,” potentially allowing new visa routes to be launched as staffing gaps emerge.

The CBI chief added that there “has been listening” by the government already, with policymakers caving into pressure last week to lower the migrant worker salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600.

But a Home Office spokesperson told Yahoo Finance UK: “We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system.”

He said employers should make jobs more attractive to UK workers and invest in training to help move to a “high-skill, high-wage and highly productive economy.”

He also said 2.8 million EU nationals had been granted status under the government’s EU settlement scheme.