Welcome to the land of confusion
Published: 03 October 2007
The age of the 'global village' has brought many opportunities for recruiters, with an increased talent-pool and an easier movement of labour.
But with these opportunities come problems. Paperwork is taking up increasing amounts of recruiters' time, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of overseas workers.
Harsh penalties recruiters can be fined up to 10,000 per worker if workers are found to be in the country illegally mean that agencies cannot afford to slip up, both from a financial perspective and also because of potential damage to their reputation.
Things would be easier if there was one set of documents to fill out for any overseas worker coming to the UK, but unfortunately this is not the case.
Steve Hill, operations director at Extrastaff, a high-street agency for drivers and industrial workers, estimates he has seen “dozens upon dozens” of different types of visa or work permits.
“I think I've seen more than 40 different types,” he explains. “The number has grown substantially since the expansion of the EU to include Romania and Bulgaria [on 1 January this year].”
To start with, food processing and agriculture are the only sectors open to Romanians and Bulgarians wanting to come to the UK.
The movement of Romanian and Bulgarian workers is just one example of the confusion surrounding visas and correct documentation which can dog the recruiter ad nauseam.
Different types of visa or work permit are an inevitable spin-off for any recruitment organisation which looks beyond the UK for its staff.
Recruiters told this magazine that the problem is not always the volume of paperwork although this is a factor; rather, it is the lack of guidance they receive from the Home Office which can cause problems.
Claire Jackaman, managing director of Bracknell-based PDR Partners, which recruits clinical research professionals for pharmaceutical companies, cites an example.
“We have had one incident in the recent past, where we were suspicious of an applicant's visa permit in his passport. There was a simple spelling error contained within the text of the permit. We contacted the Home Office and sent a copy of the suspicious document to them. It transpired that it was a legitimate work permit spelling mistake and all! They thought it was funny; I didn't.”
One can understand Jackaman's frustration. It took two weeks to receive the information from the Home Office, who had made the mistake in the first place. Valuable income-generating time was lost.
“It's got to the point now where, when we talk to each other, a candidate will say 'I've got such-and-such a permit' and we say 'What's that?' ”
A case in point is the 'fresh talent' work permit for foreign nationals working in Scotland. Upon investigation, it appeared to be the Scottish equivalent of the HSMP (see box, above right).
As Jackaman points out: “The candidates seem to know more about it than we do.”
The problem, many people who work in the recruitment of overseas staff will say, is that there seems to be a lack of guidance coming from the Home Office.
Hill says: “It's very difficult to get information and most of the things we've had from them seem to be out of date. They gave us a booklet on what to do some years ago but I don't even think that's been updated. The Home Office is not very clear with their advice.”
Jackaman backs up this view and suggests a possible solution. “I understand that it would be impossible for the Home Office to contact every recruitment agency in the country, but could they not let the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) know what we should do?”
For its part, the REC says there could be more trouble on the horizon for recruiters.
“The implementation of a new points-based immigration system, based on the Australian model, is going to be phased in over the next couple of years, meaning that things could get worse before they get better,” explains Anne Fairweather, the REC's head of public policy.
Existing documentation will still be valid until its expiry date, but it will surely take time and expense to bring in the new system.
Even the cost of a visa varies, depending on the type of visa required, with fees ranging from 30 to 260. Employers can sponsor an employee and pay to have their visa processed or the employee must pay themselves directly.
Trying to find out precisely what steps need to be carried out is nigh-on impossible. On the 'frequently asked questions' section of the government's website on employing migrant workers, there are more than 80 questions.
Hill contends that the number of visas is so widespread, it is almost approaching saturation point.
“I'd like to think that surely they can't produce any more! If they brought out a new visa tomorrow, how is that communicated to business?”
One recruiter has shown that it does not need to rely on the Home Office to get its act together to provide valuable information. Financial services recruiter Envision, based in Houndsditch, London, responded to the needs 40-page booklet on visa rules.
Executive manager Adam Maurer says: “We sold between 6,000 and 8,000 copies in the first 12 weeks. It contained information on the selection criteria, what each visa means and where to get more information.”
Maurer pointed out that the booklet, which is no longer sold but is sent out to candidates, was a first step to helping applicants know whether they were eligible to work in the UK.
“Some people have no hope,” he admitted. “But we do get hundreds of applications from, say, South-East Asia and people need to know whether they are eligible to work here.”
Envision's booklet is a welcome exception to a subject area which can leave recruiters submerged in a fog of confusion.
But, whatever the problems with immigration, they need to be resolved quickly. As Fairweather points out: “Knowing whether or not someone has a right to work here is the first step towards stopping illegal working.”
HOME OFFICE RESPONSE
The Home Office told Recruiter that it hoped changes to the way immigration works, based an Australian-style points-based system, would make the issue of visas much clearer.
The proposals, which will be phased in from early 2008, will mean that migrants will come into the UK under one of five tiers.
Tier one is for highly-skilled workers; tier two is for skilled workers with a job offer; tier three is for low-skilled workers filling specific temporary labour shortages; tier four is for students and tier five is for youth mobility, ie working holidaymakers and temporary workers.
The tiers will apply to any immigrant worker who is not an EU citizen, such as US citizens.
The proliferation of work permits and visas for Bulgarian and Romanian workers is complicated, however, by the fact that there are exceptions to the rules.
Entry under a specific work permit is permitted, and anyone who enters under the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP) a points system which determines whether skilled workers are eligible to work over here is allowed in.
Restrictions that mean they can only work in the food processing and agriculture sectors could end in seven years' time, but, while only 20,000 have entered since the turn of the year, an estimated 600,000 people have come to the UK from the EU since 2004, and that number is growing all the time.