The care charity ‘Independent Age’ has published a report that examines the potential effects of Brexit upon employment vacancy rates within the social care sector. The report précises itself thus, “We raise concerns that if thousands of EEA migrant care workers lose their right to work in England as a result of post-Brexit immigration changes, it will be almost impossible to close the already sizable social care workforce gap.” For the report’s authors, Brexit augers possible disaster for the care sector through staff depletions, and thus, threatens the wellbeing of our elderly and vulnerable.
“Older people’s charities warn that if Brexit forces [European workers] to leave, care services could be in jeopardy”, was the BBC’s take on the report. And so, with Brexit imminent, a chill wind blows for those with loved ones dependent upon the assistance of carers. Except that the charity’s own report somewhat dissipates the fears which it, itself, provokes. For example, it notes that over two thirds of care workers from overseas come from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), although most recent appointments (over 80 per cent) now come from within it. The report explains this marked change in the ethnic makeup of immigrant care-workers as being, in part, a result of “the decision by the Coalition Government in 2012 to remove ‘senior care workers’ from the skill shortage list, making it more difficult for non-EEA migrants to enter the UK to work in social care”. It is surely not, therefore, beyond the ken of government to merely reverse this decision if it wants to avert a crises in recruitment.
The accession of Eastern European nations to the EU has had an inevitable knock-on effect upon immigration policy for non-EU citizens. Tier 3 of the points-based immigration system for non-EU citizens, which was originally designed to allow low-skilled workers to fill vacancies in sectors suffering from labour shortages, was suspended by the Government, in expectation of Eastern European workers filling such roles, and has never been used.
The rule structures are in place to allow for targeted immigration so as to counter any labour shortages incurred as a result of Brexit. None of the report’s fear-inducing scenarios consider the potentially ameliorative effects of issuing targeted work permits. As such, they present us with a partial and negative narrative, stirring up the prospect of drastic post-Brexit staff shortages. They are raising the prospect of disasters which are surely avertible. The report does briefly note in conclusion that, “allotting care workers priority access rights in a work permit system [could be effective]”, however, such nuances failed to make it into the BBC’s ominous report.
The care sector does not adhere to the rules of a normal labour market. Being both an essential sector and one heavily dependent upon public funding, its pay levels have not previously risen so as to fill increasing numbers of job vacancies. As a result, it has been hard to recruit sufficient numbers of British workers. Of course, nobody voted for Brexit in the hope that we simply replace EU-workers with non-European workers, but for the time being, we either get foreigners in, or we leave the positions vacant and let people suffer.
However, the issuing of sector-specific work permits, by their very nature, would not impact upon the wider aim of avoiding general wage depression as a result of immigration. Where once EU citizens could flock to any industry – ones which do follow the normal rules of the labour market – and drive wages down, now they would be channelled into sectors where they are most needed. Could this channelling not actually be a boon for recruitment in the care sector and ultimately fill the employment gap? This is not considered by either the report or the BBC coverage. Instead we get doomsday scenarios. Just another day of anti-Brexit hysteria.