Access to skills at all levels is essential for business

Any successful economy is dependent on an available workforce. From construction to tourism and from agriculture and food processing to social care, the necessity of a supply of workers is obvious.

In recent years migrant workers from the EU have been essential in filling employment gaps in the building of new houses and infrastructure projects in the Highlands, as well as in our hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, farms, factories and hospitals, to name a few.

Across Scotland, EU nationals have played a significant role in tackling our demographic challenge, providing new blood in a variety of roles supporting public services and private enterprises.

Indeed, retaining free movement and recruitment of EU nationals is one of the main reasons why the SNP Government at Holyrood and many other politicians supported continued EU membership.

However, now that Brexit has happened and the UK Government has moved to curb migration levels, including from the EU, some businesses, and even whole sectors, north of the border are feeling under threat.

Last month the government proposed that from January next year a new points-based immigration system be introduced giving priority to those with the highest skills and greatest talent in a move aimed at ‘shifting the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation’. Employers, argue the UK Government, will need to adjust.

We recognise the need for, and the contribution made, by incoming workers with high levels of skills and wish to continue see them being welcomed in Scotland. However, the effect of the proposals could make it much harder to employ EU workers in relatively low-skilled sectors.

Inverness Chamber of Commerce supports the stance taken by the British Chambers of Commerce which argues that access to skills at all levels is essential for business. We also share the view of Dr Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, who has urged the UK Government to ensure all workable options are in the mix including proposals from the Scottish Government and other partner agencies and that dialogue needs to continue with businesses to ensure immigration and skills policies work for business and the economy.

A flexible and simple immigration system is needed to allow companies to recruit workers, including in temporary, seasonal and permanent roles.

Over the past decade, an estimated 45% of migrants to Scotland from overseas have come from EU countries, although more recent estimates suggest that immigration from EU countries to Scotland and the UK is decreasing. Most EU nationals come to the UK to work – it is estimated that 67% of immigrants from EU countries came to the UK either with a definite job or to look for employment, while a further 19% entered to study.

According to a Scottish Government report, EU workers make up a notable share of employment in a number of sectors in Scotland, including in agriculture, where there are about 10,000 seasonal migrant workers and in life sciences where EU workers account for 17% of the workforce.

There is a strong case being made in Scotland to have its own immigration policy to meet specific these recruitment needs and demographic challenges. The Scottish Government has called the current proposals offensive and are pushing to have the right to issue its own visas and work permits.

Having the ability to grant residency and work rights to foreign nationals, on condition that they work only in Scotland, may be the way around the UK Government’s clumsy migration policy and the way forward for our businesses and economy.