From education to employment

University of Birmingham survey finds not all immigration paths are created equal

Following this week’s announcement of a five-point plan to bring down legal migration, conversations persist around whether the UK’s immigration policy is fit for purpose. 

Many are questioning the effectiveness of routes open to migrants, including schemes like the Graduate Visa, High-Potential Individual Visa, and British National (Overseas) (BNO) visa scheme– all introduced or reintroduced in the past 3 years- in their ability to fulfil the objectives within the UN Global Compact for Migration, including to “mitigate the adverse drivers and structural factors that hinder people from building and maintaining sustainable livelihoods in their countries of origin.”

Since 2021, over 123,800 individuals have been granted entry entered the UK on the BNO visa scheme, which allows BNO passport holders residing in Hong Kong and their dependents to live, work and study in the UK for 5 years.

A survey conducted by the University of Birmingham found that recent arrivals from Hong Kong accessed employment in a variety of industries, including those which have reported a labour shortage in the post-COVID and post-BREXIT context such as education, healthcare and hospitality, but their job quality varies.

In summer 2023, Dr. Fuk Ying Tse, in collaboration with West Midlands Hongkonger support CIC, surveyed 449 respondents who arrived primarily via the BNO visa scheme in the past 36 months, hoping to understand the demographic profiles of those actively seeking employment, their job seeking behaviour, economic and psychosocial benefits of employment, as well as the ability their job provides for them to take control over their working life and utilise their skills. 

Among the respondents, more than half of them are currently employed by a UK-based employer in industries such as education and childcare, administrative and clerical work, healthcare, warehouse and logistics, hospitality, manufacturing, and others. However, a sizable portion of respondents reported experiencing low pay, insecure employment contracts, unpredictable working hours, clash in work cultures, underutilisation of skills and unfair treatment at work.

Like many native Britons, online sources such as recruitment websites and Gov.UK are widely used for familiarising with the job market, understanding statutory employment rights and applying for jobs. However, their employability could be affected by language ability, caring responsibilities, logistical arrangements, the lack of knowledge and connection in the UK labour market, inexperience in job searching, and a lack of recognised licences and qualifications for professional jobs in the UK.

Despite a growth in employment support services targeting recent Hong Kong immigrants provided by community and diaspora groups, primarily with funding from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities via the Hong Kong BNO Welcome Programme as well as other charities, over 70% of the respondents said they had never accessed any online or in-person employment-related support services. 

Knowledge about the local labour market is acquired primarily by one-directional desktop research, which might be insufficient for them to handle more complex or workplace-specific issues independently.

‘Not only are we interested in opportunities and challenges in navigating the job market and applying for jobs,’ clarified Dr. Tse, ‘but also in the quality of jobs that these immigrants hold, which enables them to settle and be assimilated into the new environment. This would have practical implications for future directions of intervention for employment support service providers.’ 

Tai Shing Li from West Midlands Hongkonger Support CIC also highlights that precarity hits older workers and those with caring responsibilities particularly hard, leading to exploitation by employers and recruitment agencies.

At a time where many are weighing up the potential impact of reforms to limit legal migration, policymakers are asking themselves about the role of immigration policy itself- whether it functions simply to decide who can come and go, or if it has a responsibility to enable migrants to establish roots in the UK, to make migration more sustainable long-term.

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